Although the Czech Republic has a higher functioning democracy than most other Eastern European countries, it too has seen a gradual shift towards illiberalism. From 2006 to 2021, the Czech Republic went from a democracy score of 8.17 to 7.74. Andrej Babiš, billionaire businessman, campaigned on the accusation that the establishment was corrupt and incompetent, a common strategy among populists. His 2013 campaign was ultimately successful for a party that was only two years old, receiving 18.65% of the vote and becoming the second largest party in the country. In the 2017 election, however, Babiš was able to draw in 78 parliamentary seats (three times as many seats as next largest) and secure 29.64% of the vote (two times as large.) Finding coalition partners proved difficult for Babiš’ ANO party, as he himself had been facing criminal allegations, namely tax avoidance and fraudulent EU subsidy claims he made as Finance Minister (for which he was later indicted.) In addition, smaller parties were worried about the possibility of ANO dominating the government coalition. Nonetheless, after ample debate, an agreement was finally reached between ANO and the Czech Social Democrat Party to create a minority coalition to run the government.
ANO’s rise to prominence represented a shift towards populism in Czech democracy, not unlike nearby countries and infamous democratic backsliders Poland and Hungary. Czech government had previously been a stable system dominated by four major well-established parties until the creation of ANO. Babiš was a first in several regards, as a matter of fact. He is the first head of government to be charged with a crime, the oldest and wealthiest Prime Minister, and also the only Prime Minister not from either the Civic Democrat or Social Democrat party.
Babiš and his style of populism are also unique in comparison to other backsliding Eastern European democracies. For one, there is not a prevailing Czech nationalism as is distinct in Orbán’s Fidesz (Hungary) and Kaczyński’s PiS (Poland). In addition, Babiš “amassed great political, economic, and media power as an oligarch before creating the ANO ‘anti-corruption’ party” (Svatošová 2020), unlike Orbán who obtained his current power through the political establishment. Babiš’ ANO, also unlike its Eastern European counterparts, has demonstrated its willingness to “seek to co-opt opponents from a position of strength, rather than to confront them” (Hanley 2018). Hanley goes on to write “the concentration of power by Babiš in the name of efficiency may represent a quieter politics of backsliding that is just as consequential in the long-term” (ibid.)
Babiš’ strategy stands in contrast to that of Orbán, who vilifies opposition and cracks down on NGOs and journalists. Instead, Babiš incorporates voices from academia, journalism, and NGOs, enhancing his legitimacy. Nonetheless, Babiš employs a populist rhetoric centered around anti-corruption (which is ironic, given his experience with corruption). Babiš was also aided in large part by the fact that he owns two of the biggest newspapers in the Czech Republic, which he bought in 2013 ahead of the elections, making him the most influential person in Czech media. Unsurprisingly, Babiš used his media power to discredit and put pressure on opposition parties. Babiš also abused his position as Minister of Finance to silence media outlets that criticized him or his party (Ibid). Once in a position of power, Babiš appointed loyalists close to his business into his administration. He was able to use his company to amass a group of individuals to “misuse state information and blackmail state officials” (Ibid.)
Babiš has previously made public his views on how democracy in Czechia should operate, specifically in his book “What I Dream About When I Happen to be Sleeping – a personal vision for Czech democracy.” In it, he details the necessity of creating a centralized, majoritarian system, one without checks and balances, to improve efficiency. This is characteristic of Orban’s vision of illiberal democracy, a leader whom Babiš has expressed admiration for. Babiš has also expressed his desire to run the country like a business, somewhat akin to Donald Trump’s aspirations.
Research has been conducted to explain illiberal tendencies seen in post-Soviet countries, but specifically Czechia. As it turns out, decades of authoritarian rule did not allow for democratic norms to effectively take root. “The long-term exposure to propaganda, all-encompassing control, repression, and persecution, reflected particularly in a ‘subservient political culture’ and a ‘weak civil society.’” (Svatošová 2020). In addition, the privatization of companies and the lack of clear regulation surrounding it allowed the emerging parties of Czechia to take advantage, generating corruption and clientelism.
In addition, Czechia was also susceptible to polarization over globalization, which inherently created winners and losers, as well as over immigration. Populists like Babiš seemingly offered a simple and quick solution to emerging problems of security and modernization. Claims to save the pure people from the corrupt elite, without a concrete underlying ideology, fits the definition of populism perfectly.
Babiš did not end up winning re-election in 2021, but his damage to the democracy of Czechia has already been done. His success paints a picture of a Czech electorate that is dissatisfied with the status quo, one that is perhaps more interested in economic security than democratic principles. Although Babiš’ strategy for consolidation of power was different in numerous ways from Poland and Hungary, the principle of democratic regression is consistent between cases.
Seán Hanley & Milada Anna Vachudova (2018) Understanding the illiberal turn: democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic, East European Politics, 34:3, 276-296, DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2018.1493457
Svatošová, Hana (2020) Czech transition to and Backsliding from democracy : will “Truth Prevail” over the illiberal challenge?Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas. http://hdl.handle.net/10400.5/21469