27th June 2017

Elections and Politics: Assessing the landscape at the start of the Election Campaign


Did the government crisis change anything?

  • The government crisis spelled the end of effective policy-making for the Sobotka government.

  • There are two, complementary questions for the parliamentary elections: Who or what can stop Babis?, and Can ANO form a single party government?

  • The strong probability is that the country is headed toward an ANO dominated government with a single, weak coalition partner.

  • A breakdown of the other major parties in the election.


    What is the practical outcome of the recent political duel within the coalition? Bohuslav Sobotka is the prime minister, but not the chair of his party. Andrej Babis is the chair of his party, but not the finance minister. Politics shapes strange symmetries.


    Babis holds the future, for now. His party leads almost every poll, convincingly. If polls turned into reality today, ANO would likely be able to form a government with a minor coalition partner, and dominate the next electoral period.


    Sobotka can console himself that he is one of the few prime ministers who survived his entire government. Klaus, Spidla, Gross, Topolanek and Necas could not do it. Yet, once he reaches the full term, his long career in Czech politics appears to be at an end. His party’s chairmanship has been ceded to Interior Minister Milan Chovanec. Sobotka’s place as his party’s face of the future has been bestowed upon Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaorelek. Mr. Sobotka will spend his last days as PM balancing this unusual three-headed party leadership team within his now dysfunctional three-member government coalition.


    No one expects the government to accomplish much from this point forward. Each coalition partner probably will use their ministries to illustrate their party’s campaign themes. Some speculate that the Social Democrats plan to attack Mr. Babis through police investigations. Others say that ANO will use its government position to dig up scandals related to CSSD financing and deal-making. Time will tell. That both sides still believe that the legal system can be manipulated for political purposes emphasizes that progress toward public trust in its government has been incremental.


    The question of the summer is What can stop Babis? One could also flip the question around and ask Why isn’t ANO in position to form a single party government?


    The answer to both seems to be Mr. Babis. The other parties have spent the last four years trying to eliminate him, and the result is that he is stronger now than he was then. Babis seems immune to further assaults on his character or his business. That could change, however, if the accuser was the EU or another international body, or if Babis loses his increasingly adept political sense or restraint. His handling of the government crisis indicates that the chances of Babis making a misstep are low.


    So if Babis is not likely to hurt Babis, can he help himself get more votes? He could, but it would take a change in management style, or, at least, a change in his reputation. Many in the business community are resistant to support Babis, even though his background should make him their natural candidate. These people are concerned that he might possess the DNA of an autocrat. Babis could change this perception by raising the profile and importance in party decision-making of other election leaders.


    The danger of such a strategy is that once ANO loses its absolute association with Babis, it may confuse its image, and reduce its support.


    This is not to reduce the election to a choice to vote for Babis or not to vote for Babis, but to underline that he and his party are going to be the main protoganist in the race. Is there any chance that will change?


    With its change at the top, the Social Democrats have the best chance at changing the focus of this election. Zaorelek preformed well at the party’s ideas conference. However, CSSD faces the opposite problem of ANO: instead of being defined by one man, the Social Democrats are now going to represented by three. Not one of the three seems ready to rise above the other two. Their message likely will be mixed, and their momentum slowed.


    The other parties still must find something to attract the spotlight. Most of the attention awarded to KDU-CSL detailed the squabble over whether they should join forces with STAN, and how. TOP 09 still has not find a way to define itself other than as Karel Schwarzenberg’s vehicle, driven by Miroslav Kalousek. ODS has been running a issues campaign, but they still seem haunted by their past.


    So, it seems that we are headed for a substantial ANO victory, followed by a test of whether the parties are serious about forming a bloc against Babis. It might take only one party to decide the benefits of being in government outweigh the moral merits of opposing Babis. If ANO can form a government by choosing one of several parties, the guess here is that ANO will get its coalition. If it takes two, the path for ANO starts getting difficult.


    CSSD: Is a new face with the same message enough?

    -CSSD is using traditional themes to appeal to its voters. The voters, however, may no longer be traditional.


    CSSD has its ideas for the election: assert that it is protecting democracy against Andrej Babis and promise that it will raise wages substantially over the election period. Cloaked in both is a vow to bash big corporations, especially foreign ones, and tax the rich. These are traditional themes of the party; the question is whether their voters believe in them anymore.


    Of all the major parties, CSSD faces the biggest fault lines in its base (partly because it has a big base). Like with many advanced economies, the increase in wealth among blue collar workers has allowed them to be less concerned with their wage, and more concerned with social issues. And blue collar workers tend to be more conservative, as a whole, than left wing parties. The question with this part of the base is whether they will vote with their wallet or their values. CSSD seems to be betting that they will vote with their wallet.


    Even if the wallet wins out, the Social Democrats face another challenge: does the workforce really believe that CSSD has a credible plan to increase their income. Workers are smart enough to recognize that taxing the rich makes more money for the state, not for the workforce. They also recognize that taxing companies makes money for the state, but reduces the pool of revenues available for salary increases. A majority of Czech workers have probably advanced beyond the stage of class warfare, and have a keen eye for how policies benefit them, and not how they hurt others.


    What will determine how CSSD does in the election is how much faith their base places in the party being an effective and fair redistribution agent of the increased taxes they promise to take from the rich. If their blue collar voters are convinced that the Social Democrats will take the money from the rich and use it to help working class families, the Social Democrats may rise in the polls. If workers believe that the money will be stuck into politicians and donors pockets, or spent to raise the salary of bureaucrats, CSSD will find it difficult to escape a dismal result.



    Lidovce-Starostove: A steady pair of hands to do what?

    - The promise of both parties seems stymied by the absence of identifying issues.


    This pairing of the third member of the current government and the former partners of TOP 09 has a couple of things going for it. KDU-CSL navigated its way through the constant fights between its two coalition partners without sustaining too much damage; it is also the traditional party with the least scandal associated with it. On the other hand, KDU-CSL’s ministers did not accumulate either major, public achievement or popularity during their period, and it enters the election as an established name with little enthusiasm associated with it.


    The Party of the Mayors entered the current parliamentary period with some momentum. They had recognizable names with good reputations, and the image of being practical doers instead of political talkers. The party has been unable to capitalize on that momentum. Their major accomplishment during the last election period was the registry of contracts, an anti-corruption measure judged as the most important such legislation in the history of the country by anti-corruption groups and as causing more problems than it is worth by critics.


    Since both parties are not proposing any new faces at the top of their platform, they need an issue that can help define them and attract undecided voters. Their coalition contract states promotion of Judeo-Christian values as their first principle, and follows it with anti-corruption, euro-Atlantic ties, subsidiarity (devolving government done to the local level), solidarity, equal opportunity, reducing bureaucracy and stable public finance. Solid general themes, but nothing to galvanize voters to choose them at the polls: most parties are going to have a very similar list of themes.


    It would have been good to put that idea out early, before the big parties started spending their cash to promote their own agenda. But it is not too late, and if these parties can find the surprise issue that can redefine this election, they stand the best chance of generating the most gain in the polls.


    TOP 09 and ODS: Parties struggling with the loss of their figureheads aim at ANO’s.

  • Both parties are haunted by scandals of the past and departure of the strong personality which helped form them.

  • ODS has a sturdier structure that has helped them survive predictions of demise.

  • TOP 09 needs a defining idea beyond opposition to Mr. Babis.


    These parties will be addressed together, because they share many characteristics. First, they define themselves as being the alternative to Andrej Babis. Second, both are defined by the fiscal policies of the Necas-Kalousek government. Third, both are trying to overcome the departure from active politics of their most renowned member (Schwarzenberg for TOP 09, Klaus for ODS). Fourth, both are saddled with scandals in their past.


    ODS has been declared dead on numerous occasions, but is now rising from its nadir. The party has a core of supporters who never left. The question is whether they can attract new ones. The party’s leader is trying to contrast himself with Andrej Babis, perhaps hoping to pick a fight with Mr. Babis that would result in more attention for ODS. At the moment, Mr. Babis is not taking the bait. The party has been known for its ideology in the past, but has not generated any major theme for this election. The party will make it into parliament, but it is hard to see them generating more support than 15%.


    TOP 09 is in worse shape than ODS. The party has less history and structure than ODS. The party leader, Mr. Kalousek, is better known than Mr. Fiala of ODS, but is known for scandals and the austerity policies he pushed after the economic crisis. Until the Prime Minister took over the role, Mr. Kalousek has been the leading voice opposing Mr. Babis, and most people believe Mr. Babis won that prolonged confrontation. TOP 09 can hope that CSSD and ODS will whittle voters from ANO and those voters will choose to attach themselves to ANO, but to be a significant player in the next Parliament, TOP 09 needs a big idea.


    As it stands today, both ODS and TOP 09 seem to be depending on the public souring on Mr. Babis. That is a strategy that has yet to work in four years.


    KSCM: We will complain about everything for you!

  • Their success depends on the ineptitude of other parties, particularly CSSD, and the resentment of pensioners who retired before they could benefit from the economic change.


    KSCM could finish second in the elections. This is an indication of the troubles affecting the other parties, more than the strength of the Communists. Their message remains the same: a protest against the changes started by the Velvet Revolution. Their sturdiness will last as long as pensioners look at the wealth being created, and realize it came too late for them.





Members of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic