Pundit: Five-party coalition “have better chance than many think”

Five-party coalition

The Czech political landscape has been shaken up by the weekend’s general elections. Andrej Babiš’s ANO were pipped to first place by the three-party Together group, who have agreed to form a government with another electoral coalition, the Pirates and Mayors. But can the five parties form a workable coalition? And what happens to ANO now? I discussed the outcome of the elections with political scientist Dr. Sean Hanley of University College London.

Sean Hanley | Photo:  archive of Sean Hanley

“It’s a surprise, but not a total bombshell.

“You could see that there was potential for Andrej Babiš to lose.

“You could see that the centre-right coalition [Together] was performing well and the Pirate-Mayors coalition were fading.

“What’s surprising is just how well the Together coalition did and the margin by which they won the election.

“I was really expecting a closer election.

“Czech politics is simplified: the small parties are out, the left [Social Democrats and Communists] is out of Parliament.

Andrej Babiš | Photo: Office of Czech Government

“And Andrej Babiš is down, but not out.”

This five-party coalition – the two electoral coalitions combined into one coalition – is a rather disparate group, united really only in their opposition to Andrej Babiš. Do you think they can hold together to form a government?

“I think they’ve got a better chance than many people think.

“They’re not as disparate as, say, the coalition that was formed after the last elections in Slovakia.

Pirates | Photo: Ondřej Hájek,  ČTK

“They’re effectively a four-party coalition, because there are so few Pirates represented in the Chamber.

“Even if the Pirates went off, there would still be a workable majority.

“And all of these parties have worked together previously and are quite well established.

“So it will be tricky, but it will be a lot less tricky than some people think.”

So you think they could rule together in the longer term?

Photo: René Volfík,  Czech Radio

“That is difficult to say. I think it depends on two things.

“I think it depends on how skillfully they can manage the coalition and deal with issues that divide them, such as Europe and some social issues, like equal marriage.

“And it depends on events. So it really depends on austerity, on the pandemic.

“But I would say that they’ve got a reasonable chance.

“It depends on their political skill and if they can carry over the very well-coordinated, skillful campaign into actually governing – and on things that are really out of their control.”

President Miloš Zeman | Photo:  Twitter of Jiří Ovčáček

When do you imagine we could actually get a new Czech government? I’ve seen at least one pundit saying that it won’t be before spring of next year.

“That’s difficult to say.

“I think it will depend really on the state of health of the president.

“Secondly it will depend on the strategy that Andrej Babiš chooses to implement.

“If he wants to hold things up, it could easily be several months.

Office of Czech Government | Photo: Kristýna Maková

“But equally he may decide that he can’t hold things up and that he will let this new government take over – and then hope that they quickly run into trouble and then maybe look at running for the presidency.

“My gut feeling is that it will be quicker than some other government formations that we’ve seen, simply because of the size of the mandate.

“It’s a very clear mandate and a clear result – not the finely-balanced result that many of us were expecting.”

Ivan Bartoš | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

You mentioned the fact that the Pirates don’t have so many seats in the lower house. At one point not so long ago there were profiles of their leader Ivan Bartoš as a possible future prime minister. Where do you think it went wrong for the Pirates, who were aligned with the Mayors & Independents in an electoral coalition?

“I think it went wrong in several ways.

“I think their campaign started to go wrong fairly early.

“They didn’t really have a clear or consistent message. The coalition didn’t have a clear brand.

“They were obviously kind of blasted by this negative campaign and misinformation from ANO and Babiš, which they weren’t really able to respond to.

“And finally they were obviously undermined by preference voting, by the Mayors, or by voters supporting the Mayors bloc.

“That probably could and should have been anticipated.

Mayors | Photo:  ČT24

“If they had looked back, they would have seen that voters of this particular locally-based grouping do tend to use their preference votes, because they often want to support their local mayors.

“I think it boils down to the political inexperience of a small, new liberal party which was trying to play the role of a government in waiting, which in the end – perhaps unfortunately – wasn’t up to.”

I’ve heard people saying this new five-party coalition government, if it is formed, should address the people who aren’t represented. Because a lot of voters voted for parties that won’t be in the new lower house.

Petr Fiala | Photo: Igor Zehl,  ČTK

“I think it would be a sensible thing to do.

“I noticed that the probable next prime minister, Petr Fiala, did strike that kind of note.

“As you say, there are a large number of on the whole sort of left-wing, non-liberal voters who haven’t been represented.

“There’s also, I think, a large bloc… If we think about the future of ANO, if Mr. Babiš moves into the background – if he leaves politics or becomes president – there’s a big question about that party and its voters.

Illustrative photo:  Radio Prague International

“Its voters are really what we used to think of as the traditional left wing of the Czech electorate.

“So yes, there is an issue there.

“And I think the incoming coalition would do well to be careful to be not too polarising and quite careful in its fiscal and welfare policies, and possibly should emphasise the more sort of social market aspects of its make-up.

“It’s interesting that the two parties which are really the winners within that coalition, due to preference voting, are the two parties with the least liberal economic policies, with more social economic policies, which are the Christian Democrats and the Mayors.

ANO | Photo: Michal Kamaryt,  ČTK

“So, in a nutshell, yes.”

If Andrej Babiš were to take a backseat, what do you think would happen with ANO? He’s so much the face of ANO, he set it up and in a sense he IS ANO, to a great degree.

“It would be very difficult.

“One thing that has surprised me, and probably some other observers of Czech politics, is that they didn’t really make the transition to being a more clearly profiled party of the centre right or centre left.

“I think there’s probably quite a big potential for it to either break up or become a rather vague party, maybe being sort of eaten into by patronage networks.

“Though on the other hand, Mr. Babiš has been quite able in managing conflicts within the party, in jumping on faction-fighting.

“But whether he can simultaneously manage it whilst not being up front and centre politically is another matter.

“He’ll have to show the powers of management he claims to have.

“But I think there is a potential for the party to unwind and possibly even to collapse quite spectacularly, if he does move into the background.”