Jiří Přibáň: Economic downturn could spark new type of Czech populism

Jiří Přibáň, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Though long based in Wales, where he teaches at the Cardiff School of Law and Politics, Professor Jiří Přibáň is a regular commentator on politics in his native Czech Republic. Last week I discussed the rise of populism, the chances of a vote on leaving the EU and the outlook for Czech liberals with the sociologist and theorist of law and constitutionalism. But I first asked Jiří Přibáň how Andrej Babiš’s ANO had, in little over five years, succeeded in becoming the dominant force in Czech politics.

Jiří Přibáň,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“First we have to say that ANO in 2011, when it was set up, was very different from ANO as we know it today.

“It was a party riding on an anti-corruption ticket, speaking to urban, liberal voters.

“At the same time, of course, Andrej Babiš was clever enough not to repeat the mistakes of previous parties which wanted to be on the liberal right and at the same time like junior, moral alternatives to mainstream parties.

“So he pushed for much more a radical, populist agenda.

“I think he had to be pretty shocked by his success in the election of 2013. He realised that power is in his sight, so he transformed, he changed the agenda and started to address a more left-wing electorate.

“And today ANO is much more on the populist left, in terms of social policies, and populist right in terms of anti-immigration or open society politics.”

Is it the case that they’re simply using focus groups or whatever to really target what Czechs want, and are really focusing on the most mainstream Czechs?

“Yes. It’s a party which is very heavily driven by public relations, PR agencies and social media.

“I think Andrej Babiš had to be pretty shocked by his success in the election of 2013.”

“They are very clever, very skilled, in what they do and how they do so.

“It’s a completely new style of political communication to which mainstream parties didn’t have a chance to respond.

“And, you know, there is a lure of populism that you can simplify complex political matters.

“But the problem with populism that mainstream parties have to realise is that mainstream parties can always be outsimplified.

“So if they want to copy populism, they will lose out.

“I think is this what happened to Czech mainstream parties – that they tried to copy Babiš, they tried to copy Okamura, the extreme right-wing party [Freedom and Direct Democracy].

“And this is a non-starter, because they will always be outsimplified by these guys.”

We’re now pretty much after the last elections that were won by ANO on almost 30 percent. What’s your view of what kind of government we will eventually get here in the Czech Republic?

“Well, I’m not a prognostician, unlike the Czech president.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
“But as a constitutionalist, I am profoundly worried about the situation.

“Because every constitution has to have some leverage for political actors and the Czech constitution is no different in this respect.

“But the actions of the president and Mr. Babiš are such that they delegitimise the parliamentary system.

“Because every government has to ask for a vote of confidence. This government governs despite the fact that it lost a vote of confidence.

“The formation of a new government is taking a lot of time, which is being used by the current government to do profound changes.

“This is not a caretaking government, this is a government which has been making some extremely important decisions for which they don’t have legitimacy.

“The second problem is that now options are diminished [this interview was recorded last Wednesday, after ANO-Social Democrats talks broke down and before ANO decided to reopen them].

“One option is a minority government. The other option is a government with extremist parties. None of it is ideal.

“But it’s interesting that there is an easy solution to the deadlock: that Mr. Babiš will stand down as prime minister and a government can be formed relatively easily.

“So it’s really the problem and the problem of political culture which is now driven by the cult of personality. Not in the Stalinist way, but nevertheless in a very destructive way.”

You get cycles in politics. For example in the US, you’ll have a Republican president and then a Democrat president. Populism seems to now be on top in the Czech Republic. Can we expect, eventually, a swing back towards what we were used to be before? Or do you think that populism is here to stay in the longer run?

“The problem with populism that mainstream parties have to realise is that they can always be outsimplified.”

“I think we are witnessing the collapse of party politics as we know it.

“I always emphasise that populism is a style. It’s not just a risk or threat to democracy – it’s one of many styles of democratic will formation or public opinion formation and contestation.

“You have to be a populist to some extent, if you want to win a democratic contest.

“The problem with current populism is slightly different. It’s not that it is populism.

“The problem is that it represents a certain anti-politics of rage and legitimate or illegitimate concerns and fears.

“And it is being successful because mainstream politics has lost touch with the electorate.

“It became just a managerial, technocratic supplement to the global economy mantra.

“If Bill Clinton said in the 1990s, It’s the economy, stupid, today we can say, It’s politics, stupid.

“So I think there will have to be some political response to the discontents of economic globalisation.

“People like Donald Trump, referenda like Brexit and let’s and not forget the vote in Italy – they are just symptoms of a much more general societal transformation that we are witnessing.

“That it is risky for democracy, there’s no question about it. But that democracy is the best and most flexible solution to our problems is even more important to emphasise.”

One big issue in the Czech Republic these days is the possibility of a vote on leaving the European Union. How likely is it that such a vote will eventually take place?

Illustrative photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“I think that the political parties in Parliament realise how risky the whole act of referendum and its proposal is.

“The current proposal would mean that it is unrealistic to organise such a referendum. So I wouldn’t worry about the current legislative proposal.

“Speaking more generally, I would be very concerned if this referendum is eventually organised and pushed through, because I think that Czech society could easily vote against EU membership.

“Sometimes I jokingly say that I have the same privilege of representing the two most Eurosceptic nations, Britain and the Czech Republic.

“But Czech Euroscepticism is very different from British Euroscepticism.

“British Euroscepticism is informed by post-imperial nostalgia.

“We are very special, we are global, we are more open than Europe – this is what makes us different. We are still ruling the waves.

“Czech Euroscepticism is the Euroscepticism of a small nation which doesn’t want to open up, which wants to be closed, behind doors, which suffers from a certain complex of inferiority that the world out there is dangerous, hostile and unwelcoming – and that’s why we should keep to ourselves.”

But if we expect that Mr. Babiš will probably be around for quite a few years to come and will be running this country, will he not be a guarantee against Czexit? At least in terms of his business interests – surely he will want to remain in the EU?

“I think we are witnessing the collapse of party politics as we know it.”

“I think you are absolutely right. This is one of those strange paradoxes of contemporary Czech politics.

“We are gradually losing checks and balances between the executive and legislative power. We fortunately have robust top judicial bodies, which guarantee constitutional rights and liberties, to some extent.

“And the only check and balance as regards the executive power is business interests in the West, in the EU.

“So pragmatically speaking, yes, ANO is a pro-European subject.

“But let’s not forget that politics is very liquid and the economy can change fast.

“I think the next economic recession will be hitting Czech society in the next electoral cycle.

“So the risks are unseen right now, but the next time people will go to vote it’s likely that the real estate bubble, unemployment will be up and therefore economic hardship will affect the Czech political style.

“Because we shouldn’t forget – this populism came to power in the economic cycle when Czech society is in the ascendancy and getting more affluent.

“What happens with populism when you have fewer opportunities, more unemployment, more hardship and more austerity is really an open question and there’s hardly an optimistic answer to it.”

So basically what you’re saying is if you’re a Czech liberal things are just going to get worse?

“We really should push for a liberal agenda because there is after all a strong legacy of 1989 and a strong legacy of politics of democracy, republicanism of the Masaryk style, the pragmatic world view of Karel Čapek.

“Czech Euroscepticism is very different from British Euroscepticism.”

“I think there is a lot in this country to build on.

“Liberal and democratic traditions are strong in this country – much stronger than elsewhere in Europe.

“But we have to fight for them and we have to reorganise and mobilise.

“I happened to land in Prague on Sunday and on Monday I took a walk and all of a sudden I was in a demonstration against Mr. Babiš.

“So there are possibilities of mobilisation, but it will take time.

“I’m sure liberal, democratic politics will come back sooner or later.

“And with a robust, independent system of justice we can pull through.”