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The Czech government’s popularity problem

Widespread protests are rocking the Czech Republic and government parties are polling at new lows. As the current ruling coalition crosses into the second half of its tenure, the return of former PM Andrej Babiš looms on the horizon.

December 18, 2023 - Ladislav Charouz - Articles and Commentary

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala visiting Chishinau in June 2023. Photo: Victor Mogyldea / Shutterstock

Two years into his prime ministership, things are looking bleak for Petr Fiala. On November 26th, a poll showed the opposition party ANO trouncing Fiala’s Civic Democrats three to one, with the far-right SPD now in second place. Then, on the following day, the Czech Republic was swept by a massive wave of protests against the government’s new package of cuts and austerity measures. Staff at three quarters of the country’s primary schools, middle schools and kindergartens went on strike, which also saw participation from unions across various sectors of public life.

On the short-term horizon, these developments portend a blowout in the 2024 elections for the European Parliament, the Czech senate and regional bodies. As the government enters the second half of its tenure, however, eyes are also turning towards the 2025 parliamentary elections. It is unlikely that Fiala’s coalition will succeed in these votes, especially given the good fortune surrounding its victory in 2021, when two opposition parties remained narrowly under the parliamentary threshold. The alternative is the return of former PM Andrej Babiš and his ANO party, accompanied by the revival of old worries about media freedom, conflicts of interest and foreign policy isolationism.

What explains the government’s declining popularity and the rise of ANO and SPD? One major factor is the economy. On November 27th protestors criticized the coalition’s austerity measures, which are set to affect education, pensions and public sector wages. Fiala has defended these measures as necessary to bring down the budget deficit and combat inflation, though some experts argue that the Czech Republic’s property tax, for instance, remains among the lowest in Europe. This is not the first time Fiala’s government has come under fire for its economic policies. Last year, its delayed response to rising energy prices – which are among the highest in Europe – received pushback from all sides and likely contributed to the country’s sluggish post-pandemic recovery.

Throughout these challenges, commentators have criticized Fiala’s government for its lack of communication and for breaking campaign promises. Two years ago, the Civic Democrats ran on lowering the budget deficit without increasing taxes. Their plan involved cutting back on governmental bureaucracy and addressing existing tax exemptions. Fiala’s policies are thus seen as backtracking by his own centre-right constituency, which views measures like higher highway tolls and the expansion of the top tax bracket as forms of progressive income tax.

The economy, however, is only half of the story. The government’s waning popularity can also be attributed to public disillusionment with its ethics, which were a major theme in the campaign against ex-PM Andrej Babiš. The latest scandal to spiral out of control is the case of Justice Minister Pavel Blažek, who is being investigated over his handling of city properties in Brno, along with several party colleagues. According to critics, Blažek unduly interfered in the case by repeatedly requesting information from state prosecutors. Recent reports further allege that a whistleblower in the case has been sacked over his criticisms, which would be a violation of EU law. 

Blažek’s refusal to resign has led to unfavourable comparisons with the previous government led by the billionaire Andrej Babiš, whose conflicts of interest drew criticism both at home and at the level of the EU. Two years after his prime ministership, however, the threat of Andrej Babiš to the democratic establishment may be losing its potency. Indeed, his recent appearances have seemed chaotic and bizarre rather than threatening. In recent weeks, for example, Babiš took the internet by storm with his incoherent ramblings on the price of Nutella and recipes for homemade hazelnut spreads – hardly a telltale sign of an aspiring authoritarian. As this more benign image of Babiš dominates the media, demoralized voters of the government coalition might increasingly choose to stay at home rather than head to the polls.

It is important to recognize that these problems have not affected all the governing parties equally. The current government is made up of two coalitions: PirSTAN (the Pirate Party and Mayors and Independents) and SPOLU (the Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and TOP 09). PirSTAN, in fact, is polling at around the same figures as in 2021, which could be due to the general perception that Fiala’s Civic Democrats are the main driver behind the government’s austerity. The Christian Democrats, on the other hand, seem to have haemorrhaged support from their older voter base, for whom pensions and other social issues are of vital importance. They and the Civic Democrats have also gained very little by spending considerable political capital on the drawn-out and acrimonious debate over gay marriage.

The government’s declining popularity is even more dramatic when compared with the rise of ANO and SPD. This was not always a foregone conclusion. Both ANO and SPD are relatively new movements, having made inroads with a formerly left-leaning electorate. While ANO has displaced the Social Democrats as an advocate for more generous welfare spending, SPD has ousted the Communists among more Eurosceptic and illiberal voters. In the 2021 elections, neither the Social Democrats nor the Communists received enough votes to cross the parliamentary threshold. Now, polls are confirming a possible permanent exit from parliament, solidifying the gains made by ANO and SPD.

As neighbouring Poland readies itself for a change in government, Donald Tusk’s coalition would do well to take note of Petr Fiala’s shortcomings. The Czech government’s failure to clearly communicate its economic policies, ethical missteps and infighting on highly mediatized issues has not done it any favours. At the same time, the government has made some positive steps to safeguard democratic institutions even after its tenure is over. Its tightening laws on media ownership, for example, have forced Babiš to sell off his media empire. A new law has also made it more difficult for the government to overhaul the councils of public broadcasters, showing that some anti-democratic trends can be reversed. Whether these changes will survive another Babiš term, however, remains to be seen.

Ladislav Charouz is a commentator on international affairs and a former junior analyst at the European Values Center for Security Policy. He received his BA in English and a combined BA/MA in history from Yale, as well as an MPhil in International Relations from Oxford.

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