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
The Czech Republic is an often overlooked example of democratic “backsliding” and seems to have its own flavor of populist politics as you greatly pointed out. One thing I was considering while reading your blog was its communist past. Like Hungary and Poland (other countries sliding into authoritarianism) the Czech Republic was once a Satellite State of the Soviet Union. Understanding how the former Soviets launched their processes of statehood and the legacy of communism could better explain the diverse set of political behaviors and developments in these countries . Especially since all these countries seem to be sliding into authoritarianism (albeit in their own ways as you mentioned). Political Scientists have examined this by looking at not just the evolution of each state (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) but also examined the role of legacies that existed in each country . The obvious defining feature being the shared communist past. Studying the communist legacy gave birth to the successive social theory of Post-communism. This theory interprets the varying degrees of political decisions and attitudes towards democracy, gender-equality, social welfare etc. as influenced through the legacy of communism .
Communism in these countries was not just a shared history but a point of reference that informs decisions on fundamental social, political, and economic issues . Furthermore, the varying degrees of experience in communism led to the varying decisions that these states would make. In the book Communism’s Shadow, Pop-Eleches, and Tucker describe this analysis through the metaphor of a sunburn. Living through communism is like exposure to the sun, the intensity and temporalities of the exposure determines the severity of the sunburn, likewise, in communism “the temporal exposure is the time spent living under the rule of that regime” . Therefore, the varying intensity and time spent under communist rule will shape both the country and individual attitudes toward the overall social, political, economic issues that are shaping the country . Although it is important to note this has a generational and regional aspect to it. Places like Ukraine—already subject to Russian rule—were inundated to communism from the Russian civil war onward . Where countries like the former Czechoslovakia, were not under communist control until 1948 . In addition, generations in different countries were exposed to communism at different levels. Someone born in the Gorbachev era of the Soviet Union would have little experience with communism itself, whereas their parents would have lived the majority of their lives in communism by 1991. A Ukrainian in their Soviet Republic will be exposed to a different degree of communist control compared to that in Western Germany. All together, this theory attempts to encapsulate the proclivities of each former Soviet state, despite the disparate evolution, by understanding the various dynamics of their communist past through temporal, regional, generational, and experiential means.
What is important to note when looking at post-communism—and something I believe pertains to the Czech Republic—is toleration for authoritarianism and possibly indifference for democracy. There isn’t nearly 250 years of democracy that permeates Czech culture like it does in the United States. There are generations within the country that not only lived under authoritarianism but may even be skeptical about democracy. Especially since in the 90s, democratization ushered economic collapse and hardship in many post-communist countries. This coupled with authoritarian nostalgia could also be contributing to democratic backsliding in the country and a willingness to accept Babiš’s more authoritarian whims.
Great topic Wyatt! Really enjoyed reading about it!
 Pop-Eleches, Grigore; Tucker, Joshua. Communism’s Shadow: 3 (Princeton Studies in Political Behavior) (p. 28). Princeton University Press.
 Ibid. 1. p. 28.
 Ibid. 2. pp. 7-30.
 Ibid. 3. pp. 2-7.
 Ibid. 4. pp. 10-12.
 Ibid. 5. pp. 10-12.
 Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (p. 14). Henry Holt and Company.
 Ibid. 1. pp. 232-226.
Hey Wyatt, I really enjoyed your post. I was completely unaware regarding democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic, and it is an interesting case. As you mentioned, Babis utilized a common strategy amongst populist leaders: running as an “anti-establishment” candidate. Having read Hugh’s blog post about Bolsonaro and focusing on John Mogufuli for my case study, I’ve learned that many modern day populists present themselves as anti-establishment in an effort to separate them from the corruption of past leaders and their political parties. However, upon election more often than not they reveal their true nature and engage in corruption themselves. This is certainly true in the case of Babis, as you pointed out. Being the first Czech president to be taken to court regarding allegations of corruption is a huge red flag. I greatly appreciate your analogies to other populist type leaders in Eastern Europe, and it is interesting to learn the unique nature of Babis’ regime and nature as a populist leader. The fact that he did not play upon Czech nationalism is in stark contrast to other populist leaders across Europe, including the ones you mentioned and Marie Le Pen in France, who I wrote about in my post. Most other populist-esque leaders in Europe play upon nationalism heavily and supplement their arguments with anti-immigrant rhetoric. The legacy of soviet rule, as you mentioned, is well cemented into the culture and political norms of many Eastern European states, and increases the likelihood of populist and autocratic figures emerging on the political scene and gaining power. Your post was really well written and I learned a lot – and I’m not just being nice, I honestly enjoyed reading it.
This was a great blog post! I really enjoyed reading this, especially since I’ve been working on researching democratic erosion in Turkey and it was interesting to compare the two countries. It is also extremely interesting yet concerning to examine the rise of populist leaders across the world, as it seems to be happening everywhere. I’m interested in the idea of a party being the main connecting factor between people rather than Czech nationalism, as nationalism is often a driving factor of populism in other countries. It is also surprising that Babis was charged with a crime yet still able to maintain his position as prime minister, although I feel like this may continue to happen in other countries as more countries move further from democracy and closer to autocracy. I also feel like his use of journalists and academics definitely would increase his legitimacy and possibly blind some citizens from his effect on democracy. It seems like Babis’ intentions in the country have not been kept hidden, but as you said, the democratic norms you may see in other countries are not as present, meaning these actions might not seem as concerning. This is similar to the situation in Turkey, as the Turkish people do not have the same attachment to the idea of democracy that would be present in someone from America, and therefore some of the symptoms of democratic erosion are not as blatant or as worrisome to citizens. Although much of the attention paid to democratic erosion is given to Poland and Hungary, I think it will be essential in the future to also focus on countries like Turkey and the Czech Republic as they display concerning signs of democratic backsliding. However, as Babis is now out of power, maybe it will be possible for the Czech Republic to move back the other way toward democracy, and maybe this trend can continue in other European countries.
Ann Hollis Sanders
Thank you so much for your research and comments, Wyatt. One of the points that I found most interesting in your blog post is Babis’ strategy of cracking down on NGOs and journalist, while also incorporating their voices to increase legitimacy. I found this interesting because you would think that the Czechia people would be able to see that tactic, and not find it attractive in a candidate, however it seems like his populist tone is allowing him to woo over his people. Babis’ campaign and policy strategies also remind me of the government in Brazil currently. A lot of politicians have/are running on anti-corruption policy points, which are attractive to voters. However, what voters don’t tend to do is to investigate these politicians’ pasts with corruption, or even if they are using corruption in their campaign against corruption. This happened with Donald Trump’s campaign. He claimed the “big lie” after he lost the 2021 Presidential Election and said that it was stolen from him (claiming corruption and fighting got “justice”). However, the way that he fought against corruption was through stirring up a crowd in front of the United States Capitol that then invaded the building and committed many crimes. Many politicians fight corruption with corruption, which is an important characteristic of populist leader’s ideologies. Another huge sign that you mentioned of an eroding democracy, is a fight for centralized power. This democracy seems to be rapidly declining, and if something doesn’t change soon it will be a dictatorship before we know it.
I can confidently say that before reading this post, I was woefully unaware of the democratic erosion occuring in the Czech Republic. It seems that the central European nation is sharing notes with the other illiberal democracies of that region. Although the specific case of democratic backsliding in Czechia is new to me, I cannot say that I am necessarily surprised. The trend of the last decade in Europe and some New World states in regards to populist and far-right parties shows no signs of slowing down. Newer parties on the scene, like the ANO, seem to grab the attention of both the middle aged unsatisfied conservative and the young, radical nationalist. I appreciate your mention of corruption in regards to Andrej Babiš. Although corruption is not necessarily a direct symptom of democratic erosion (e.g, Singapore, an authoritarian right-wing state whose one-party dominance is reminiscent of Mexico’s PRI, has one of the lowest corruption scores according to organizations like the World Bank); it is almost certainly correlated with a reduction in the quality of democracy. Without public trust in elected officials, populism gains footing through a sort of vindication of their messaging. I worry that a trend like this could lead to a pendulum-like repeated transfer of power, populist vs. populist, leading to further instability and potential for corruption. As you mentioned, a weaker civil society may lead to an inability to fight populism and corruption, as politicians will not be held accountable outside of elections. However, the indictment against Babiš shows some promise in that the power of civil society, weak as it may be, is still present and willing to combat those who circumvent the rule of law. Furthermore, although populism and illiberal rhetoric may be things that voters are willing to overlook, corruption is almost universally detested in politics. Thanks for your post, I’ll definitely be keeping the Czech Republic on my radar from now on.
I appreciate you focusing on a country that others chose not to, as it provided me with a perspective and information I honestly didn’t know much about at all. I found it interesting how the populism present in the Czech Republic is different than that of other backsliding European countries. His way of consolidating power vs other prevalent leaders accused of the same thing is a frightening form of backsliding that could prove to be difficult to combat as well as recognize. His use of credible sources and an education-backed offense is one we don’t often see. It makes me wonder what the lasting results of his time in power will be, and if he’s created a path for others to follow in a way that would have lasting damage.