Rational politicians won the Czech elections, but it remains to be seen if they can orient the country in the right direction.
What do Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sebastian Kurz, and Andrej Babis have in common? They all were visited during the past 12 months by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and they all lost elections.
A nice joke and coincidence, but the Czech parliamentary elections, and their surprise results, illustrate the truth that only close cooperation among democratic forces can push back nationalists and populists. The news that two coalitions of democratic parties had defeated Babis, the populist, oligarchal prime minister, saw celebrations erupt all over Prague. And hopes rose around the region, certainly in Hungary, where the opposition is in the throes of building a coalition to run in next spring’s elections.
Still, if one examines some global political trends, the post-election situation in the Czech Republic gives few grounds for long-term optimism.
Take populism. Within the winning coalition, SPOLU (“Together,” made up three right-of-center parties), there are clear sympathies toward Austria’s now ex-chancellor Kurz, who faces allegations of corruption and manipulation of opinion polls. Some SPOLU members, such as Alexandr Vondra, former defense and foreign minister, also have expressed understanding for Orban.
It is also no secret that the SPOLU parties are close politically to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, which is perpetually embroiled in rule-of-law disputes with the European Commission.
The election outcome definitely does not mean the Czech Republic will leave the Visegrad Group, the Central European foursome perceived as toxic and negative by partners in the European Union. From this point of view, it will be relatively difficult for the new governing coalition to show that it is somehow fundamentally different from the prevailing euroskeptic narrative in Central Europe.
The Czech position in the EU is related to two global megatrends: the long-running struggle between liberal democracy and autocracy, and the need for a new economic paradigm to address climate change.
If, to take the first trend, Czech politics is to distance itself from open flirtation with authoritarians and past-oriented nationalists, this is problematic, seeing that nearly half the votes went to parties that embrace nationalism and populism one way or another. To send a signal, therefore, the new government would do well to reaffirm as loudly as possible, not only at home but also at the international level, the legacy of Vaclav Havel as a symbol of a democratic, free, and open world, which now is under pressure from Communist China on the one hand and illiberal tendencies in the United States on the other.
Next, adapting to the changing climate and revamping the world economy is the greatest challenge for the generations living today. It will affect everyone, no matter what they think about the causes of climate change. As it relates to the Czech Republic, the temptation to resist new types of energy, new modes of transport, and new technologies can only cause the economy to lag behind in the coming decades and thus jeopardize the current and especially future prosperity of all Czech citizens.
Again, it will be quite interesting to see who in the next government will address these challenges and how, and who will be able to reach young voters, for whom the victory of the SPOLU coalition is a victory of dinosaurs. Ask most Czechs about combating climate change in general terms and they will be in favor. When specific issues and details arise, most have a problem. The Czech economy is too dependent on the traditional automobile industry, which is undergoing fundamental change in Western Europe and America. The same is true of the digital state and the digital economy.
Czechia voted against Babis and against the abduction of the state by his holding company, Agrofert. This result is undoubtedly good for Czech democracy and the institutions of the Czech state. But it is not at all certain whether the Czechs voted as they did so their society might truly break free from traditional Central European provincial thinking to secure a prosperous future.
Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.