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It is tempting to see the victory of Andrej Babiš in the Czech parliamentary election through the prism of creeping authoritarianism, which has been on the march in Hungary and more recently in Poland. But that is a misreading of an electoral outcome that will likely mean more continuity than change in Czech politics — for better and for worse.
It is true that Mr. Babiš is an unapologetic populist, claiming to stand on the side of the little guy against incompetent and corrupt political elites. His wealth, brusque manners, and unpolished language are strongly reminiscent of President Trump. (See this interview for a good flavor.) And like Polish and Hungarian leaders, Mr. Babiš lacks any deep-seated enthusiasm for the European project.
However, there are two significant differences. First, unlike Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Mr. Babiš does not have an ideological agenda. Not only is he manifestly not a Czech nationalist — he is, after all, an ethnic Slovak speaking in heavily-inflected and unidiomatic Czech — but he also lacks the basic elements of a coherent political worldview. His movement, ANO, promises that “things will get better,” but one would be hard-pressed to identify even the most vestigial of ideological instincts, such as President Trump’s zero-sum view of international trade and security alliances.
Second, Mr. Babiš will not be able to govern alone, and must form a coalition government. A key part of the Hungarian and Polish problem is the unchecked dominance of one party over all branches of government — Fidesz and Law and Justice, respectively — which they have used to rewrite the rules of the game: electoral law, judiciary review, and media. While Mr. Babiš owns two of the country’s leading broadsheet newspapers and might have the appetite to entrench his power further, he is constrained in doing so. And if he reaches an agreement with Social Democrats (CSSD) and Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), the new government will be simply a reshuffled version of the current one, in which Mr. Babiš was holding the post of finance minister.
This is not to say that the concentration of political and economic power in Mr. Babiš’ hands is not a problem for Czech democracy. Likewise, it is a problem that his government is bound to be mired in scandals related to the future prime minister’s many conflicts of interest — in fact, Mr. Babiš has been recently charged with subsidy fraud, an accusation he vehemently denies. And, yes, events in Prague could take an ugly, authoritarian turn, as they have in Warsaw and Budapest.
Yet, by far the most pressing risk facing the Czech Republic is not authoritarianism, but rather following a path similar to that of Italy under Silvio Berlusconi’s successive governments. Instead of serious reforms that would make the small Central European country competitive and resilient to the challenges of the 21st century, the coming years will likely be wasted on scandals and media stunts. Both the Czech economy and the country’s democracy will end up poorer for it.
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