Political reboot postponed in Czech Republic after election

It should have been the end of the political crisis. Instead, the Czechs chose a protest vote. Following an early election with no clear winner, a new political crisis looms.


Bohuslav Sobotka, the leader of the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD), was sweating profusely in the spotlight when he stepped before the cameras after election results were announced on Saturday evening (26.10.2013). After seven years in opposition, his party should have been the big winner of the early Czech election, which was brought forward after the scandalous demise of the Czech center-right coalition a few months ago.


But faced with disappointing results, Sobotka remained defiant. Yes, he said, it was true that 20 percent was "not what we expected." Nonetheless, he pointed out, "It's the best result of all the political parties."


The CSSD wanted to make an immediate start with coalition negotiations. But on Sunday, CSSD party leadership called for Sobotka to step down as leader following the disappointing results. Sobotka has refused, insisting his party "took the wrong decision."


 Czech Social Democratic Party leader Bohuslav Sobotka during a press conference at his party headquarters during the second day of the Czech Republic's parliamentary election in Prague, Czech Republic, 26 October 2013. The Social Democrats appear to have won most votes in the parliamentary election in the Czech Republic, near-final results showed 26 October.


"I won't resign on the basis of today's call approved by a majority in the CSSD leadership," Sobotka told reporters.


When forming that new government, there is one man who will be impossible to avoid. The millionaire media mogul Andrej Babis and his protest movement ANO [an acronym for "Action for Alienated Citizens" which also means "yes" in Czech] came from nowhere to become the second most powerful force in parliament with fewer than 19 percent of the vote. Babis, who owns a food and chemicals empire, fought his campaign with the slogan "We're not politicians; we work." Now he will be deciding the political future of the country.


'Devastating result'


The early election was intended to bring an end to the political crisis in the Czech Republic. The government of former Prime Minister Petr Necas was split by coalition quarrels, and was finally brought down by an eavesdropping and corruption scandal in June. The country's first directly elected president, Milos Zeman, then appointed a caretaker government closely allied with his own Party of Civic Rights (SPOZ), only to see it lose a parliamentary vote of confidence in August.


Parliament was dissolved, but Zeman's caretaker government remains in office. Political observers are commenting that the country has made a sudden shift towards becoming a presidential democracy. Now the elections have ended in another stalemate.


Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and political adviser to former Czech President Vaclav Havel, described it as a devastating result for the Czech political scene. "We'll probably see yet another round of elections very soon," he said.


Seven parties and political movements have managed to pass the 5 percent hurdle needed to enter government, among them two parties no one wants as coalition partners: the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) - the third largest party in parliament with just under 15 percent - and the Dawn of Direct Democracy party, another protest movement that successfully garnered almost 7 percent of the vote with promises of direct civic participation and slogans such as "Enough of all this mess and corruption."


The Czech people used the election as a chance to express their frustration, and to punish the parties of government. The conservative party TOP 09, of the former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, has announced that it will be going into the opposition. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which until Necas' fall was the strongest party in the government, is threatening to plummet into insignificance after scoring less than 8 percent.


'Millionaires don't steal'


Miroslav Cerveny would have liked to have taught the president a lesson. "I'm disappointed," said the 85-year-old pensioner, strolling in a park overlooking Prague Castle on Sunday. He pointed up at the castle, the presidential seat. "President Zeman is abusing his office. He ought to remain neutral." Cerveny would have liked to have seen a strong conservative government that would have defied the president.


But Denis Masat, 31, another passerby, had reason to celebrate: he supported the protest movement ANO. "I voted for the new party because I think that a millionaire will have no reason to profit from a career in politics," he said.


A young mother pushing a baby carriage waved aside his remarks. "We've seen all this before," said Vendula Zeleknova, reminding him of the Public Affairs party, which made it into the government in 2010 with its anti-corruption rhetoric but quickly revealed itself as a way for party founder Vit Barta to make money. The party collapsed, contributing to the downfall of the center-right coalition government in 2012.


The only strong player


President Zeman did not emerge from the election weekend unscathed. Despite a massive electoral campaign, his party SPOZ remained well under the 5 percent mark. However, the president will still manage to wield some power after the vote.


"In light of the fragmentation of the parliament, Zeman remains the only strong player in Czech politics," explained Jiri Pehe. The political scientist believes Zeman will not allow a conservative coalition government consisting of the Christian and Democratic Union, TOP 09, ODS and ANO. The sole majority remaining would be a coalition between Sobotka's Social Democrats, ANO and the Christian Democrats, newly elected to parliament.


Observers expect, however, that should ANO take part in the next coalition, it will quickly lead the government into the next crisis. The political movement is just two years old, and shortly before the election party leader Babis switched his political views from the protest-inspired left to center-right. Though he course-corrected during the campaign, the newcomer to the Czech parliament has said he follows no particular ideology. His only promise: to run the Czech Republic like his business.