The Czech Elections: Unexpected National Populist Victories, and the Rise of the Centrist Populists

Andrej_Babis_Sebastian_Kurz_2015_(16330390570).jpg

(Babis/Creative Commons)

Over the course of the weekend, the Czech Republic held its legislative elections for all 200 seats in their Chamber of Deputies.

In the prior election of 2013, the two major left-wing parties -- the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Communist Party (KSČM) -- had formed a coalition with the brand new populist party Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO).

Coming into this election, polling overwhelmingly gave ANO a massive lead while the two left-wing parties were expected to decrease slightly; all other parties were expected to either have slight increases or decreases, or remain steady.

Instead, the result was a shocking upset all across the board. Not only was it a victory for National Populist (NatPop) parties that even rivaled their performance in Austria, but it also marked a significant shift in the ongoing “Patriot Spring” phenomena across Europe: the rise of the Centrist Populists, or CenPop for short.

First, as was to be expected, ANO did in fact come in first by a landslide. With just under 30% of the vote, the party won 78 seats (an increase of 31 from their previous total in 2013, when they were the second-largest party).

This puts the party’s leader, billionaire Andrej Babiš, in a position to easily become the next Prime Minister of the Czech Republic.

Babiš has had mixed reactions towards comparisons between him and President Donald Trump, although he too is a billionaire businessman and a populist who seeks to bring reform to the government and challenge the establishment.

However, Babiš’s victory was just the beginning. Although the polls projected that the two major left-wing parties would still remain in the top three, the result was about as close to the exact opposite as you could get.

The ČSSD lost 35 seats and fell from first to sixth, ending up with only 15 seats and 7.3% of the vote -- its second-lowest percentage since the breakup of Czechoslovakia, and its lowest seat total in that same period.

The KSČM, despite falling to fifth place and remaining just slightly larger than the ČSSD, had its worst performance ever; also earning only 15 seats, it was also that party’s lowest seat total ever. And with 7.8% of the vote, it was the first time in the party’s history that its vote total was less than 10%.

This complete collapse of the establishment left was countered by a shocking rise for two right-wing parties: the main center-right party, Civic Democratic Party (ODS), and the right-wing Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD).

The ODS rose to a distant second place against all polling expectations, with 25 seats overall and 11.3% of the vote, while the ODS came in third with 22 seats and 10.6% overall. Both parties are Eurosceptic, with the ODS being like a more traditional center-right party, and the SPD being the undisputed NatPop party of the Czech Republic.

The SPD in particular is a brand new party, having been founded in 2015 out of a split from the previous NatPop party, the Dawn of Direct Democracy.

In one final shot across the bow at the establishment, another relatively new and clearly outsider party, the Czech Pirate Party, also outperformed polling expectations. While the polls predicted the Pirate Party would come in sixth overall, it ended up tying for third place alongside the SPD, also winning 22 seats.

As a more centrist party, it is one of many Pirate Parties around the world; its most prominent sister party is the Icelandic Pirate Party, which tied for second in that country’s most recent legislative elections in 2016, but was left out of the subsequent coalition government.

Now, Babiš appears ready to form a coalition government with the ODS and SPD, which would ensure that the Czech Republic follows Austria as the latest European country to suddenly shift firmly to the right, with a heavily Eurosceptic and anti-immigration tone.

However, Babiš’s role in this development is especially crucial and unique, as ANO is actually not an explicitly nationalist party, and defines itself as being in the center of the political spectrum. Therefore, it is technically not a NatPop party, but instead a CenPop party.

While a rarer occurrence in Europe than NatPops, CenPops are not unique: A similar example can be found in Italy with the Five Star Movement (M5S), led by actor and comedian Beppe Grillo, which is also a centrist populist party, lacking in nationalism, with a softer Euroscepticism, and some more left-wing stances (such as environmentalism) than most NatPop parties.

That party too has the potential to become the largest party in Italy’s elections next year, and possibly form a coalition with more right-wing parties such as Forza Italia and the NatPop party Lega Nord.

But whether it be CenPops or NatPops, one thing is certain: From Austria to the Czech, the massive socio-political movement that has mercilessly toppled political establishments all across Europe -- whether you call it the “Patriot Spring,” or “New Nationalism,” or some other name - is showing no signs of slowing down as it enters 2018. 


You can follow the author on Twitter: @EricLendrum26

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