Yet another impending election is raising worries in Europe, after the votes in Germany and Austria. Today and Saturday, the citizens of the Czech Republic are being called to the polls to re-elect their Chamber of Deputies.
The Czechs are voting after four years of relative political stability, guaranteed by the strange coalition between the Social Democrats, the Populars and the movement headed by billionaire Andrej Babiš, all in a context of strong economic growth and great international instability. For months, the polls have been showing the Dissatisfied Citizens Movement (Ano 2011), led by the former number two of the current government, Babiš, as the favorite. However, his movement is currently facing a gradual erosion in support. While they were polling at more than 30 percent during the summer, in the end they will probably have to settle for around 25-26 percent of the vote.
The main challengers to Babiš, the Social Democrats and center-right parties, have not been able to take advantage of this decline in support and remain both below 15 percent. In total, eight parties should manage to enter the Chamber, including the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. The latter is polling in third place, and has focused during the campaign on social security and on the proposal to hold a referendum on the country’s continuing NATO membership.
Representatives of the Pirate Party should also get seats in the new Chamber. They have sought to dilute their program, which was rather left wing, pressing the issue of political corruption in order to pull away some of Babiš’s voters.
Unlike what happened in Austria, the issue of migrants was a rather marginal theme in the Czech campaign. Much more attention, however, was given to the question of Europe and the country possibly joining the Eurozone.
The pro-European parties, namely the Social Democrats, the Populars and the liberal-conservatives of Top 09, are very much in the minority compared to the anti-Euro block, a more recent addition to which is the Ano movement, which has been trying to channel the skepticism of the Czechs toward European integration.
Another powerful theme was that of wages. In the last two years, wages have risen by more than 10 percent, thanks to record-setting economic growth and an unemployment figure holding firm between 3 and 4 percent. “The Czech economy’s productivity is around 70 percent of that of the German economy, but the wages of the Czech are a third of those of the Germans,” as the leader of the Social Democrats, Lubomír Zaorálek, is fond of repeating. His party promises to increase the average salary by about a third, up to €1,600 per month. In the same vein, the Social Democrats oppose the arrival of about 200,000 workers from Ukraine, accused of wage dumping. Increasing wages has become a refrain also taken up on the Right, who are in turn promising to lower the taxation of labor.
In the end, the real theme of the campaign was Babiš himself. The second richest man in the country, he controls some of the most important media through a trust fund and wants to manage the state like one would a private company. Babiš stands accused of having orchestrated a fraud against the E.U. by receiving a grant of nearly €2 million to which he was not entitled. Part of the country believes the head of the Ano movement and President Miloš Zeman represent a danger for democracy and for the pro-Western orientation of the country.
The two are, in fact, staunchly Atlanticist, although Zeman has also practiced a policy of openness toward Russia and China. Even Babiš’s former allies, while saying they do not want someone under police investigation as a prime minister, are not excluding an agreement with the billionaire’s movement. In the post-election game, Zeman will have a decisive role, with the power to decide, fully independently, who he will entrust with the formation of the new government. Zeman might also appoint Babiš to this task, even as the latter has said he is unwilling.
A government under the direct leadership of the oligarch would be unlikely to pass a confidence vote in the House, but might remain in power anyway. It has happened again and again in the Czech Republic that a government that failed a vote of confidence remained in office with full powers for months. The provisional government could last until March, when the term of the current president ends. The latter will seek reelection in January and will bank on the support of the likely winner of the current elections.
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