European elections: Did Babiš’s ANO really “win”? Depends on how you count

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s centre-right ANO party “won” the European Parliament elections this weekend. Their junior coalition partner, the centre-left Social Democrats clearly “lost”. Those are the newspaper headlines. But, as always, the political landscape is more nuanced. Mr Babiš’s foes in the main opposition parties together will have twice as many MEPs, at a time when he is under investigation for alleged EU subsidy fraud.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
After the results came in on Sunday night, Andrej Babiš told supporters that ANO had won a resounding victory despite having been subjected to an “anti-campaign” built upon false claims about the party platform, and the Slovak-born billionaire’s alleged business interests.

“I see the vote as a terrific success because there was an intensive campaign against us. Myths were spread about [dual quality] food, rapeseed cultivation, conflicts of interest – all kinds of nonsense. And of course all our opponents turned out for anti- Babiš actions.”

Over the past month, large-scale, weekly demonstrations have been held in Prague calling for the ouster of the prime minister and justice minister Marie Benešová. He appointed her just days after Czech police recommended Mr Babiš face trial over EU fraud allegations.

Yet against this backdrop, ANO managed to capture the most votes in the European elections – 21.2 percent – and will send 6 MEPs to Strasbourg, a net gain of 2 mandates. But in the most influential region, Prague, the party finished fourth.

Furthermore, the results show the growing popularity of the main opposition parties which took part in the “anti- Babiš” protests. Together, the Civil Democrats, Pirates, TOP 09, Mayors and Independents, and Christian Democrats won a plurality of 47.38% of the vote and 12 seats out of 21 in the new European Parliament.

Pirate party chairman Ivan Bartoš cast the result as another incremental win for the iconoclastic party, whose anti-corruption, pro-transparency message is especially popular with young, educated, and urban voters.

“Our goal proved a bit too ambitious – we spoke of winning maybe even 20% of the vote. But the result is quite good when you compare it to our showing in the [Czech] lower house of parliament. It’s a four percentage point gain.”

The Pirates got 13.95% of the vote and will have 3 MEPs, after having failed to enter the European Parliament in 2014. The Civic Democrats got 14.5% of the total vote and picked up 2 seats, for a total of 4 MEPs. They will all be pushing for Brussels to investigate Mr Babiš.

Also, on an individual level – call it a popularity contest – ANO did not “win” the European elections. The hands-down winner was TOP 09 and Mayors and Independents candidate Luděk Niedermayer, a former deputy central bank governor. He won re-election with a record number of so-called preferential votes overall (67,430), well ahead of ANO’s election ticket leader.

Still, there was only one clear “loser” in the European elections – the Social Democrats. For the first time in the Czech party’s history, they will no MEP to represent them. It’s a “serious blow”, as party leader Jan Hamáček put it.

Tomio Okamura,  photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
In the rising contender column are the far-right, anti-EU Freedom and Direct Democracy. For the first time, they are sending MEPs – two of them – to Strasbourg, a sign of its staying power, says chairman Tomio Okamura.

“Just one mandate would have been disappointing. Two is exactly according to plan. I think we fulfilled our expectations. And it is clear that our party has a solid place on the Czech political scene.”

Meanwhile, on the EU level a power grab is on the cards. Both the large centre-right and centre-left blocs in the European Parliament have lost their combined majority. The centre-right European People’s Party, which remains the largest bloc, is likely to engineer a grand coalition with the Socialists and Democrats bloc, with support from liberals and the Greens.