The rise of 'Babisconi'

30 Oct 2013

Another election, another signal that people are fast falling out of love with mainstream parties. Last weekend saw the Czech Republic go to the polls. The Czech Social Democrats’ victory was widely expected in an election marked by the fragmentation of the right. But the real surprise came with the success of a new party, ANO 2011 (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, a backronym for ‘Yes’ in Czech). ANO was only founded two years ago, by the second-richest man in the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis. And it was not until August of this year, just as the election was called, that ANO polled above the 5% threshold necessary to enter parliament.


The party slowly gathered steam throughout the election campaign, but even in the last polls it still placed third. In the end it came second, only three seats behind the Social Democrats with 47 of 200 in a very split field. The Social Democrats, who had been expecting big gains, actually lost six seats.


Babis’s party ran primarily on an anti-corruption platform, with Babis himself claiming that he was ‘incorruptible’ as he was too rich to steal. He promised to run the country like a business. Apart from anti-corruption measures, a promise to lower VAT and a pro-business policy, ANO ran a campaign based almost entirely on the personality of its charismatic leader. Babis has been nicknamed ‘Babisconi’ by the Czech press due to his wealth, his populism and his purchase of two newspapers which he has used to aid his campaign.


Such outsider parties are not new to the Czech Republic. The previous election in 2010 had seen the rise of Public Affairs, a similar anti-corruption party with a vague liberal platform and a policy of encouraging direct democracy, headed by a famous investigative journalist. They won almost 11% of the vote and entered government, where they subsequently became embroiled in their own corruption scandals and split due to in-fighting. The party USVIT (Dawn of Direct Democracy) had several Public Affairs members run on their list this time around, winning almost 7% of the vote.


A different type of outsider is Karel Schwarzenberg, leader of TOP 09 (Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity). Schwarzenberg is a Bohemian prince, exiled during the Communist period and known for his pipe smoking and bowties. Schwarzenberg comes across as a politician from a totally different, older, nostalgic era.


Then there is the Czech President, Milos Zeman, a former Social Democrat premier, who spent some time out of the public eye and then returned to it with a new party, Party of Civil Rights. Zeman does not believe in climate change, thinks smoking is harmless if you start after the age of 27 and refers to his opponents as ‘hyenas’.


And finally there are the Czech Communists, who are completely unreformed but who gain support from a mixture of nostalgia for the Communist period and a reputation for having clean hands because no party will form a coalition with them.


The Czech Republic’s largest two parties are in disarray. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which held the premiership from 1992 until 1998, and again from 2006-2007 and 2010 to this year fell to only 7.7% of the vote, losing almost 70% of its seats in the process. Their erstwhile competitors, the Social Democrats, received only 20.5%, leaving them with the pyrrhic victory of coming first, but losing seats and leaving them in a difficult coalition-forming process.


In many respects Czech democracy is strong. It ranks 17th in the Economist’s Democracy Index, higher than any other Central or Eastern European state, and one position below the UK. Indeed, in 2012 the Czech Republic scored above the UK on political participation and civil liberties. In some respects, perennial rebellion against established political parties may be seen as a strength of Czech democracy.


Yet it also illustrates the frustration Czechs have with their established parties, who are seen by many as utterly corrupt. After all, this election was caused by the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister over an organised crime scandal. The emergence of ANO points to a new trend in Europe towards one-man populist parties, appealing to both sides of the political spectrum and building on people’s disgust for the political mainstream.


The emergence of parties like Team Stronach in Austria, Positive Slovenia, the Five Star Movement of Italy and now ANO in the Czech Republic points to a growing dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. And mainstream politicians ignore these outsiders at their peril.