This weekend’s Czech presidential election runoff was a fight between “democracy, respect for the constitution and a pro-Western orientation against populism, lies and leaning towards Russia,” according to Prime Minister Petr Fiala.With former military chief Petr Pavel emerging as a strong winner, populist ex-PM Andrej Babiš has suffered his second defeat to an establishment ‘elite’ in as many years.
At legislative elections in the autumn of 2021, he lost the prime ministership to Fiala, a former university rector — the archetypal establishment job — and head of the Civic Democrats (ODS), a mainstream party.
In Pavel, Czechs are gaining a serious and introspective military hero who says he intends to restore dignity to the presidency after a decade of the plain-speaking and meddling Miloš Zeman, another populist who likely now departs the political scene. “Populism is the problem of our time,” Pavel declared on Twitter last June, months before announcing his candidacy.
But analysts aren’t so confident its time has come to an end in the Czech Republic. Although Pavel has succeeded at the ballot box, it is just one battle won, Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute, said.But the “struggle between the liberal-democratic and populist camps will continue,” he told Euronews The Babiš wave of populismNot exactly single-handedly, Babiš was the populist wavefront that broke across the Czech Republic during the 2010s, spurred by public anger towards the European Union following the 2014 migrant crisis and the economic fallout of the Global Financial Crisis.
In 2013, when his newly-minted ANO party came second at a general election and Babiš was named first deputy prime minister, the economy had 0% growth. The previous year, it contracted by 0.8%, according to World Bank data.Babiš vowed to fight corruption (ironic for a man stalked by graft allegations throughout his life) and to rule differently from the typical Prague “elites”.“Run the state like a business”, he declared early in his political career.
His party ANO, which when read as a word means “yes” in Czech, is an acronym meaning “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”.He had built up his Agrofert conglomerate into one of the largest Czech companies by that time, and his political career was undoubtedly assisted after he bought major newspapers and media outlets.Balázs Jarábik, a Europe’s Futures Fellow at IWM Vienna, once described Babiš as a “quintessential opportunist”.
He courted right-wing voters at the 2013 general election. Still, at the 2017 vote, he solidified on winning left-wing supporters away from the Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM).Both parties collapsed in the polls afterwards (they failed to win seats in parliament for the first time ever in 2021), although they formally and informally, respectively, backed his minority government after 2017.Did Babiš go for broke?Is Babiš now a spent force? Some optimists claim that his possible two-punch knockout over the past two years suggests populism has diminishing returns, especially amongst Czechs who fear their liberal traditions dating back to the 1920s are under attack.
Czechoslovakia was the last remaining democracy in the east before its invasion by Nazi Germany in 1939.“Sooner or later, populism will become impossible,” Pavel tweeted in December, shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy.
Some intellectuals likely agree with the potential next Czech president. Niall Ferguson, a historian, argued this month that populism has an inherently “short half-life”.“Six years ago, populism was on a roll. It has since hit a rock,” he wrote in his Bloomberg column.