Prague poised to turn away from Brussels


PRAGUE — The Czech Republic is set to take a Euroskeptic turn in a general election this weekend — even though the EU has hardly featured in the campaign.

Recent polls predict the maverick ANO movement and its founder, former Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, will be the election’s biggest winner with some 25 percent of the vote. Support for Babiš is largely due to his vow to fight political corruption — despite the fact he currently faces charges of subsidy fraud. But he has also denounced EU-imposed migrant quotas and “EU meddling” in Czech politics.

If Czech voters decide to back an adamantly anti-EU candidate and join the ranks of fellow Euroskeptics Poland and Hungary, the outcome will further strain EU efforts to maintain a semblance of political cohesion. A decisive victory for Babiš and his populist party would mark a turning point in the country’s relationship with Brussels, with the Czechs finding themselves on the periphery of a bloc increasingly likely to splinter into first- and second-class members.

Yet the future of the EU — and the Czech Republic’s role in it — has not been a big talking point in the run-up to the vote, which takes place on Saturday and Sunday.

“What is puzzling about this electoral campaign is how little, or not at all, the European prospects of the Czech Republic are being discussed,” said political analyst Jiří Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to the late Czech President Václav Havel.

“If you take into account that the European Union may actually embark on a path to a two-speed Europe, it is really puzzling that Czech politicians are not discussing this, that they don’t take any [public] stance.”

Currently, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD) are the strongest party in the lower house of parliament with 50 seats, followed by ANO with 47 seats and the Communist Party with 33. The country is governed by a three-party coalition comprised of ČSSD, ANO and the centrist Christian Democrats.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

But ČSSD has been losing ground to Babiš’ populist movement since it was outperformed in key regional elections last year. It is slated to gain 12.5 percent of the vote — compared to 20.46 percent in the last parliamentary election in 2013 — according to a survey published by research agency Median on Monday.

Unconvinced by currency

Sobotka, who recently called on the Czech Republic to adopt the euro as quickly as possible, resigned as ČSSD chairman in June and now has little influence. The only party to have made adopting the euro part of its program is the center-right TOP 09, which is currently trailing far behind in the polls at 6 percent.

Other parties are either skeptical — wary that the Czech Republic could be made to foot the bill for economic trouble in the south of Europe — or say the country isn’t ready to join the currency club.

“Believe me, Czech people are wise. This man will not be the PM” — Lubomír Zaorálek

Babiš rejects eurozone membership and has repeatedly said there is nothing wrong with a multispeed Europe, in which some members push ahead with closer integration and others — like the Czech Republic — opt out.

Czech voters are deeply skeptical about both the euro and the EU project itself. According to a 2017 survey by the Czech Public Opinion Research Center, only 18 percent of Czechs “strongly agree” the country should be a member of the bloc, while 38 percent “somewhat agree” — by far the lowest support for EU membership among members of the so-called Visegrad Group of Central European nations, which also includes Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Another poll by the same organization found that only 21 percent of Czechs are in favor of adopting the euro.

If the Social Democrats fare poorly in the election — well below 15 percent, for example — the outcome could be particularly worrying for Brussels.

When Sobotka stepped down in June, he was replaced as ČSSD chairman by Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, who has attacked Brussels on EU-mandated migrant quotas and gun control and is credited with reorienting the party to capitalize on anti-European and anti-immigrant sentiment. Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek, an EU supporter, became head of the party’s election campaign and its candidate for prime minister.

Should the Social Democrats perform badly, it is likely Zaorálek — and his pro-European stance — will be held responsible. Chovanec, meanwhile, could join Babiš’ government, pushing the party further to the right and creating a formidable anti-EU alliance in government.

Stormy scenario

This scenario could make for a stormy four years between Prague and Brussels — especially if the virulently anti-EU and anti-Muslim party founded by Czech-Japanese entrepreneur Tomio Okamura keeps gathering momentum. A recent poll put support for Okamura’s Direct Democracy and Freedom Party (SPD) at 9.5 percent.

ANO’s poll lead makes it increasingly likely that Babiš will become the country’s next prime minister. But much will depend on the margin of ANO’s victory, Pehe said.

With a fortune estimated at 88 billion Czech crowns (€3.4 billion), Babiš is the second-richest person in the Czech Republic. He has been formally charged with defrauding the EU of a €2 million subsidy but has dismissed the accusations as politically motivated and denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, the allegations could still hurt him, said Pehe.

“Many of the other parties are on record for saying that they are not going to go into a government led by Babiš personally,” Pehe said. “If his party receives under 25 percent of the vote or lower, it could encourage competing parties to try and form a government without him.”

The Social Democrats, who are likely to become the second-strongest party, have been coy about joining a government led by Babiš. In emailed comments to POLITICO earlier this year, Zaorálek said, “The ČSSD will not be in any coalition in which it would not be able to pursue its raison d’être. That means to serve the Czech people, fight for decent lives and equality in this country.”

He added, “Believe me, Czech people are wise. This man will not be the PM.”

Czech President Miloš Zeman speaks during the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, China | Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images

Other party leaders have kept the door open to governing with ANO — while insisting they do not want Babiš to be prime minister. But Babiš has repeatedly insisted that he will not let someone else take the reigns if ANO wins the most seats in parliament, and there is no obvious alternative candidate within his party for the premiership. He also has an ally in President Miloš Zeman, who is likely to throw his weight behind a coalition headed by the ANO leader.

The most likely coalition option — if the ruling center-left party takes a beating — is that the ČSSD’s Chovanec will agree to join a government led by Babiš, possibly a minority coalition with the tacit support of Okamura’s party.

The bad news for Brussels is that — even in the unlikely event that Babiš doesn’t take the prime minister’s job — his pervasive influence over the party he founded in 2012 means the bloc will have to reckon with the billionaire one way or another.

Source: Politico

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