Prague, Czech Republic. Source: Flickr.
The political situation before the elections
On October 8 and October 9, 2021, the Czech people went to the polls to decide the future composition of the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. After the 2017 elections and the two Babiš cabinets, the Country looked like it was in for quite the change, which the elections did not fail to deliver.
Czechia headed to the polls with a minority coalition government made of two parties (the pro-business, right-populist ANO2011, PM Babiš’s party, and the social-democratic ČSSD, the oldest party in the country having been founded in 1878), which enjoyed a confidence-and-supply agreement with the communist KSČM. Aside from a minority coalition government, the 2017 elections allowed the country to witness a huge rise in support for the liberal, pro-EU Pirate party (Piráti), under the leadership of Ivan Bartoš, and a positive result for the ultra-right SPD (Svoboda a Přímá Demokracie, or “Freedom and Direct Democracy” in English), led by Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. This situation had been made possible by two main elements: first, the decline of the centre-left at the same time as it was on the decline throughout the continent; and secondly, the decline of the traditional centre-right party ODS (the Civic Democratic Party of former president and PM Václav Klaus). Both of which had to do with a more general decline of traditional, establishment political forces in the region and throughout Europe.
The decline of the ODS and ČSSD had been long and steady, as elections data shows, but what came with the 2021 elections was, although not entirely unexpected, quite significant.
Evolution of electoral results 1992-2017 for ODS and ČSSD, own elaboration based on volby.cz data, a division of the Czech Statistical Office
Another feature of the Czech Republic’s political landscape is that, while the City-Periphery divide is present (as shown by the different vote shares for populist and moderate parties between central and peripheral areas), it’s not the same as in the rest of western and central Europe. When comparing the country to Italy, for instance, one can see that cities and urban areas, while more liberal than the rest of the country, channel these liberal tendencies into votes for moderate centre-right parties such as ODS and TOP09 rather than the left-leaning ČSSD. Still, areas such as the north-western Ústecký kraj, where the fallout from deindustrialisation has been much more severe than in urban areas like Prague and its surroundings, tend to vote heavily in favour of populist parties such as ANO and the SPD.
The main topics of the elections
The elections which took place in October 2021 had a few key issues which can be brought under three main categories: the economy and welfare, the handling of the Covid pandemic, and cultural issues.
First off, the economy. The Czech Republic is a rather rich country, with a €36.308 GDP per capita, slightly above both the Italian and average EU ones. Most of its exports are machinery, metals and transportation-related equipment, and its largest trade partners are Germany, Poland and Slovakia; furthermore, according to the OEC’s ECI, the Czech economy is the 7th most complex in the world. Economically developed though it may be, the Czech economy also has issues; for instance, the divide between the capital, Prague, and areas such as those around Ostrava and Ústí nad Labem is sizeable: while Prague’s GDP per capita is 172% of the EU27 average, that of Ostrava’s region is only 76% of the EU27 average. Additionally, some of the country’s most deprived areas still suffer the effects of the deindustrialisation of the 1990s and early 2000s, compounding the problem. To top it all off, the country’s GDP fell by about 5.6% during the pandemic, and, although it’s expected to rise by more or less 5% this year, a new wave of covid cases could stymie post-recession growth.
Secondly, the handling of the covid pandemic was also part of the issues debated throughout the campaign. Although it was devoted far from the same attention as other issues given the Czech public’s will to move forward and not look at the grim, recent past, it must be noted how it was effectively used to undermine the Babiš campaign. It did not take too much effort, however, as the government went from lockdown to full opening without much of a strategy, reportedly even ignoring the policy suggestions of its own data-based system. Partly due to a reluctance to hurt the economy even further, and partly due to the 2020 regional and Senate elections which were yet to take place. This mismanagement led to a worsening of the situation and eventually almost 31.000 deaths (which, in a country of 10.5 million inhabitants, means 2.844 deaths per million, compared to Italy’s 2.191 and the US’ 2.265).
Finally, as is standard in the modern day, issues related to so-called culture wars were also present throughout the elections period. Notably, immigration and an “attack on Czech culture” were leveraged as campaign issues by both ANO and the SPD, with Czechia’s position in the EU also being discussed. All parties but one, the SPD, are in favour of continued EU membership, with the only real division being whether the country should or should not join the Euro.
One would think that right-wing parties would be against while left-wing parties would be in favour, but the situation in the Czech Republic is slightly different. The social democrats, while in favour of strong integration within the EU and of eventually joining the Euro, have never acted upon it despite having ruled the country for close to ten years between 2002 and 2013. To their left, the Communists have always been strongly against both joining the EU and the Eurozone, while to their right the parties have traditionally been and still are split: TOP09, a liberal-conservative party, is in favour, while the other main liberal-conservative party, the ODS, is against, as are the KDU-ČSL, ANO and the SPD. The Pirates’ position is more ambiguous: while in favour of gradually joining the Euro, they say they would do so only if certain conditions are met which would favour the Czech Republic, or at least make the transition less problematic for it.
(Pre-elections polling data, graph courtesy of Wikipedia)
Elections results - what now?
The people had time to decide who to vote for, and the elections eventually took place on October 8 and October 9, 2021. Close to 5.5 million voters showed up to vote, 65% of registered voters.
Between October 9 and 10, the elections’ results came out with a bit of a shock, ANO lost the popular vote by a very narrow margin of 40.000 votes (0.5% more or less) but gained more seats than any other party or coalition (72). SPOLU, despite winning the popular vote, got 71 seats, while the remaining 57 seats were split between PaS (the coalition between the Pirate party and the Mayors and Independents list), with 37 seats, and the SPD, with the remaining 20. As SPOLU and PaS are coalitions, the seat count could be broken down further, revealing that, with regards to SPOLU, the ODS won 34 seats, the KDU-ČSL 23, and TOP09 won 14, while as far as PaS is concerned 33 seats went to the mayors and independents and only 4 to the Pirate party (a surprise outcome due to the preference-ranking system used in Czechia, which meant that independent mayors with large local support obtained a disproportionate amount of preferences compared to their allies).
No left-wing or centre-left party was able to enter parliament: the ČSSD stopped just short, at 4.65% of the popular vote, while the KSČM only won 3.60%. Why did the ČSSD fall? For a combination of reasons – distrust for the establishment and failure to win over younger voters among others. One such other reason is that ANO was successful in winning over the ČSSD voter base (mostly elderly and rural) by taking the credit for measures such as the increase in pensions which was passed by the Babiš government and combining these left-wing welfare policies with a strongly socially conservative message.
(Graphical representation of the Chamber’s composition, personal elaboration based on electoral results, graph made with Flourish)
The question then becomes – what now?
With President Zeman in a hospital, it’s tough to know what will happen precisely, but the most likely path forward is a SPOLU-PaS government with Petr Fiala, ODS and SPOLU leader, as Prime Minister (so likely, in fact, that a tentative agreement has reportedly already been reached). Because this is the likely end of the “Babiš” and “Zeman” eras of Czech politics, some have suggested that the 2021 elections will be remembered as a watershed moment, defining the transition from the country’s post-communist period and another, more modern era in its long history.
What this means for the Czech Republic is a firmly pro-EU, pro-NATO government, whose priorities will be to cut taxes, reduce red tape and invest in education, amongst others. The issue of Euro membership is likely to be swept under the rug for another term, as the coalition partners are split roughly evenly and most of Parliament is against it, but other issues relating to Europe will see the Czech Republic try to take a more central stage. These issues include the EU’s disputes over the rule of law with Poland and Hungary: the combination of the Czech presidency of the Council of the EU and the nature of the likely new government means that it can credibly present itself as a mediator between the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary (the ODS is part of the ECR, PiS’s and FdI’s European Party) and the rest of the EU (the KDU-ČSL and TOP09 are both part of the EPP).
There’s another part of these elections from which other countries could draw some teachings: to hold against the tide of populism, a liberal-conservative, pragmatic, and non-populist centre-right is needed, and it can succeed both where populist and left-leaning parties traditionally do – in the periphery as well as in the centre.
The 2021 parliamentary elections has definitely been a victory for liberalism and a defeat for populism, but what will end up happening because of these elections is yet to see, but its effects definitely have the potential to be more than local. The Czech Republic could finally be back on the central stage of European politics, and it might just be there to stay.