Czech EP Elections: Nothing has changed. Or has it?

The Czech EP elections have strengthened the positions of traditional parliamentary parties. The parties with xenophobic programmes, which were encouraged by the results of last parliamentary election in 2013, failed to repeat this success. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the Czech EP elections more or less duplicated the results of last year’s parliamentary elections. The parties currently in the opposition did not win, and those in power confirmed their gains, with the only change being the ranking order. Nevertheless, the election still had some interesting moments. The real winner is Mr. “I don’t care”.

Foto: CrativeCommons/Ren Muñoz

The winners

The ANO movement, led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, won the elections with 16.13% of the vote. The party continues to benefit from its relative freshness on the Czech political scene and the hopes of people disappointed with former right-wing politics, which still have not died. ANO chairman Babiš has successfully positioned himself as a non-political manager, “the practitioner” able to fix the state, understand the common people and apply common sense. His unconventional political style, combined with the non-ideological selection of both old and new political matadors to run for the party, has apparently not lost its effect yet. The EP election results have bolstered the movement’s self-confidence. According to its adherents, the party’s victory proves that it is not merely the short-term caprice of a single man, but a real alternative for center-right voters, and thus justified in aspiring to victory in the next parliamentary elections.

As Babiš said, the election proved that ANO has become “…a stable political force.” Post-election analyses show that support for the ANO movement is indeed evenly distributed across the whole of the Czech Republic. Compared to the 2013 parliamentary elections, it slightly lost popularity in the region of Southern Moravia and gained in Northern and Eastern Bohemia. ANO representatives may also be pleased to learn that, according to exit polls, their movement has the biggest potential to influence the decision-making process in the European Parliament, with 27% of poll participants believing this to be the case. Social Democrats and TOP 09 were perceived as far less likely to influence the EP at 17% and 8%, respectively.

TOP 09, headed by Karel Schwarzenberg and Miroslav Kalousek and currently in the opposition, succeeded in placing second in the EP elections. Its total of almost 16% seems to confirm once again that the party has undisputedly established itself as a viable right-wing alternative with aspirations to assume the leading role on the right side of the political spectrum. The party leadership has proven that it knows its core voters and is able to offer them eligible representatives. They had a stroke of luck in choosing the former vice governor of the Czech National Bank and economic commentator Luděk Niedermeyer, who, despite not being a charismatic political personality per se, has done surprisingly well.

In addition, TOP09 succeeded in making the political deal of the year. They managed to entice Jiří Pospíšil away from their major rival on the right, the currently sinking ODS (Civic Democratic Party). Former Minister of Justice Pospíšil, who recently left ODS in bad blood, was at one point its most popular politician. TOP09 traditionally fared best in Prague, but it also did exceptionally well in the Pilsen region, which is Pospíšil’s former constituency as a member of the ODS. Moreover, Pospíšil gained the highest number of votes among all MEP candidates (77,724). Some commentators argue that the party was helped by its expression of, at least verbally, a firm and belligerent standpoint towards Putin’s Russia during the crisis in Ukraine.

Two small parties can also be counted among the winners. The SSO (Strana svobodných občanů, Free Citizens’ Party) hopped over the five percent hurdle and thus will send a representative to Brussels for the first time. The party managed to capitalise on its long-term, consistently critical attitude towards the EU and its policies. The leader of SSO Petr Mach sees the success as a “…shift to the major league of Czech politics.”

Although they eventually failed, the Pirates, whose chairman Ivan Bartoš made his name during the presidential elections in 2013, got very close to gaining one seat in the EP. They literally “stole” 4.78% of voters from other parties, mainly from the “hunting grounds” of the Greens. Immediately after the results were made public, the Pirates announced that they would file a lawsuit demanding that the Constitutional Court cancel the five percent hurdle necessary for gaining a mandate: “The five percent hurdle restricts proportional representation of opinions in Europe, and it makes no sense to apply it to EP elections when these do not lead to the formation of a European government.” The Pirate Party points out that in February 2014, the German Constitutional Court cancelled the rule stating that political parties must gain at least three percent of votes in order to be able to enter the EP. The party representatives further argue that with their 4.78% they received exactly 1/21 of the votes, and without the five percent hurdle in effect, they would have been entitled to one seat from the total of 21 reserved for the Czech Republic. The Pirates have this problem in common with the Greens, who repeatedly suffer from wasted votes when they regularly receive between 3.0 and 4.5% of the vote in various elections. The Pirates’ voters were recruited nationwide, including the countryside, and were not limited to large cities.

Neither, nor

The Social Democrats (ČSSD) ranked third with 14.17%. While this does not necessarily have to be viewed as a major failure, it reveals a negative trend which may prove to be critical in the future – for example, during the upcoming municipal elections later this year. The Social Democrats’ chairman, Bohuslav Sobotka, failed to mobilize their voters, and once again did not prove himself a leader capable of awakening his party in a crucial moment and leading it to a clear victory. This may bode ill for future clashes with the predatory Babiš. Nevertheless, the Social Democrats can still depend on an even spread of voter support across the whole country; they are traditionally weaker in big cities (with the exception of Ostrava), but stronger in small towns and the countryside.

The Social Democrats’ close defeat by ANO could have one additional consequence. Czech Commissioner Štefan Füle’s term is coming to an end, and there is already a vivid discussion on who is going to be his successor. Prime Minister Sobotka has declared so far that the candidate should be chosen through compromise between the three coalition parties, ČSSD, ANO and KDU (Christian Democrats). The Social Democrats have already proposed their former Minister of Finance Pavel Mertlík, while ANO is more or less testing the ground; its first choice is their EP election leader and the first Czech Commissioner Pavel Telička. However, ANO chairman Babiš has not ruled out supporting another suitable candidate, even from the opposition party TOP 09: “Mr. Niedermeyer seems to be a rather good choice. In our movement, I support the opinion that we should nominate someone who will represent the Czech Republic appropriately, and it does not have to be a political nominee.” KDU representatives are trying to persuade their long-term MEP Zuzana Roithová to become a nominee. According to polls, voters see Pavel Telička as the most suitable candidate (35%), followed by Roithová (22%) and Mertlík (13%).

In addition, two other parliamentary parties – the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party – have more or less defended or even improved their positions. The former is closely connected to its regional roots, with the biggest support in southern Moravia and the Zlín region. The Communists, on the other hand, can rely on their supporters in the Ostrava region, northern Moravia and northern Bohemia.

The losers

The unambiguous, although somewhat expected, losers of the EP elections are the Civic Democrats from the ODS. Last year the governing party, now in the opposition, the party’s reputation has been heavily damaged by corruption scandals and the frequently publicised demise of its chairman and Prime Minister Petr Nečas, which has taken on the dimensions of a tabloid soap opera thanks to regularly published tidbits about his love affair with his Head of the Secretariat. The ODS has lost voters in many cities, but can still rely on a number of cities such as Prague, Ostrava and Hradec Králové, which are the constituencies of their main candidates.

The ODS was one of the few parties running for the EP elections with a clear and poised European theme: its disapproval of euro adoption. However, it has evidently ignored the real needs and desires of its non-core voters, which is demonstrated not only by its weak result, but also by the reinforced position of its rival party, the SSO. This party offered a similarly eurosceptical agenda, and managed to successfully cannibalise from the bleeding corpse of the ODS. As pointed out by political commentator Eric Best, a party’s opinion on euro adoption is no longer a valid identifier of whether that party leans more towards a eurosceptical or a pro-European position. The euro debate has, to a large extent, become a purely economic question, reflecting pragmatic views on the current situation of the Czech economy and the potential positive and negative effects that the euro could have on it. Even Andrej Babiš, with his critical view on euro adoption, could be considered as eurosceptic, although his movement ANO declares itself – and is perceived – as pro-European.

The Greens may also perceive themselves as losers, again failing to exceed the five percent hurdle to get a mandate (they gained 3.77%). They did not manage to attract their traditionally liberal, pro-European and urban electorate from Prague and Brno in sufficient mass. The chairman of the Greens, Ondřej Liška, is so far also the only one from the group of “losers” who has incurred consequences from his defeat and resigned from his post.

The success of Tomio Okamura’s Dawn of Direct Democracy (Dawn) was one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 parliamentary elections; however, within six months, the party’s share of the vote has dropped from 6.8% to a mere 3.1%. Chairman Okamura commented on the failure with the following words: “We are the youngest party on the scene; we have existed for just 11 months. Our electorate is not fixed.” However, the failure could be attributed less to “unfixed” voters and more to mistakes in nominations and an erratic personal policy, which left the Dawn’s electorate confused and content to stay home. Only a few days before the election, the party withdrew its number one candidate from the list, the controversial lawyer Klára Samková, who built her campaign on strong statements about immigration and identified herself with the anti-immigrant and xenophobic wave. Commentators characterise the Dawn’s election results as a “… blow-up”, noting that the Dawn’s “…anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric did not succeed, which is one of the best news about this election.”

None of the other “bizarre” movements in the election campaign succeeded, including the Czech Sovereignty Party, whose best-known face, former MP Jana Volfová, dressed before the elections in a burka and called voters to arms against the dangers of islamisation and the introduction of shari’a. She gained only 0.13%, which means that only 276 voters gave her their confidence.

The key to the traditional parliamentary parties’ success may thus lie in the selection of their MEP candidates. The Dawn virtually killed its own success by withdrawing its main candidate. It turned out that the movement does not have anyone else to match the eloquence and media skills of its chairman Tomio Okamura. It is becoming obvious that the movement rises and falls with his persona. On the contrary, the victorious ANO movement managed to avoid this pitfall mostly by choosing Pavel Telička, a man with unquestionable experience in EU mechanisms, and in the end they hit their target.

According to a pre-election poll, 46 voters voted according to their preferred party, while 34 voted based on personality, regardless of party. When it comes to specific candidates, voters most preferred Pavel Telička (ANO) and Jan Keller, the leader of the Social Democrats’ candidate list. In the category of perceived professional competence, Telička won again with 25%, followed by Keller (15%) and the leader of the ODS candidate list Jan Zahradil (8%). In perceived ability to defend social rights, the polled Czechs championed Keller with 22%, followed by Telička (12%) and Kateřina Konečná, the leader of the Communist Party’s candidates (9%). Telička is also perceived as the best defender of Czech national interests by 21% of respondents, followed by Keller (11%) and Zahradil (9%). In this subjective perception survey, we see that Telička succeeded in scoring even in such opposing categories as the defense of social rights on one hand and the defense of national interests on the other.

Not even twenty

Compared to the rest of Europe, and especially the western part, the Czech EP elections were not marked by any drama or big surprises. Fears of radicalisation of the political culture and the possible rise of extremist powers proved unfounded. Those who built their campaign on xenophobia, nationalism or solely on anti-immigrant topics did not succeed. Even from the point of view of euro-federalists or euro-optimists, there are some reasons to remain positive. Only six seats from the total of 21 were gained by parties (ODS, KSČM, SSO) which express more or less critical standpoints on European institutions or even reject them altogether. As MF Dnes daily commentator Josef Kopecký points out, “…it is a substantial change compared to the last EP elections.” Even Prime Minister Sobotka, in an attempt to distract attention from the lackluster result of his own party, highlighted the allegedly positive, pro-European overall result: “I would like to express my pleasure at the fact that the first three places are occupied by pro-European parties.”

But one of the lowest voter turnouts (18%) among the EU member states devalues all the positive signs that these elections might have brought, says political analyst Milan Znoj. He blames Czech civic passivity and indifference towards the EU, which he views as one of the dullest versions of euroscepticism. In his opinion, this indifferent euroscepticism is part of “…a broader civic alienation from political elites in general, regardless of whether they are European or domestic.” He compares it to the Czech (as well as Slovak) historical experience with the era of so-called normalization (after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968), when society “locked itself up”, being forced to give up all active and free participation in politics, and adopted a strong mistrust and distaste for politics as a result. According to Znoj, the alienation of political elites from their citizens (and vice versa) has taken on “threatening dimensions.”

The results of one sociological survey appear to confirm this assessment. Almost half of the adult Czech population considers the EP election to be a futile event that will not change anything at all. 43% of respondents see the election as a chance for at least minor changes in the Czech Republic and the EU, and only 9% of the population perceives the EP election as an essential opportunity to change something. This corresponds to another feature of Czech voter behavior: the fragmentation of preferences, impatience with traditional parties and a continuous search for new alternatives.

Political scientist Jiří Pehe has also tried to understand the reasons for this low voter turnout. Similarly to Znoj, and in light of the almost identical turnout numbers of our neighbors across the river Morava, he finds the explanation in our common, traumatic historical experience. It is a symptom of deeply rooted distrust. Pehe sees the common Czech and Slovak signs of this resignation in provincialism, distrust of everything “foreign” as well as everything that happens outside of our own borders, and a false sense of security (“It is not our business” and “We have survived everything, so what could possibly happen now?”), in addition to pessimism and defeatism; everything that pertains to us will be decided elsewhere anyway, just like the Munich crisis of 1938, August 1968, and even November 1989, according to some conspiracy theories. Pehe also personally blames Václav Klaus as a source of unproductive anti-Europeanism, which he spread during his entire tenure as president of the Czech Republic.

The low voter turnout is definitely a bad thing. But what if it helps to eliminate radicals or extremists? It is important to point that the current result is also a matter of chance. If the previous right-wing government had not resigned unexpectedly in the middle of last year, the parliamentary election could have taken place in its regular term in spring 2014 together with the EP election. The voter turnout would have probably exceeded 50 per cent but the EP election results would then have been more or less the same as the parliamentary ones and we could have discussed the rise of the anti-immigrant Okamura´s Dawn or bolstering of the Worker´s Party or the Czech Sovereignty.

However, the results of the EP election confirmed that voters gave their trust to the political subjects which declare their willingness to get more involved into the decision-making processes within the EU, led by Social Democrats who aim to willingly distance the Czech Republic from the eurosceptical standpoint of former Czech president and the „guru“ of Czech eurosceptics Václav Klaus. In conclusion, the key decision making centers in the Czech Republic including Czech president Miloš Zeman present themselves positively to the EU and show various level of willingness to participate actively on the European affairs. That is the real and most visible change compared to previous year which the recent EP election results seem to confirm.

Jan Adamec

Jan Adamec

is editor of the V4Revue, historian and political scientist. His area of expertise is the history of Hungary, USSR and Czechoslovakia 1948 – 1957. He graduated from Central European University in Budapest and Charles University in Prague where he currently completes his PhD degree with thesis about the Hungarian uprising in 1956.