Sociologist: Strength of leadership was a vital factor in the Czech general elections

Фото: Ондржей Томшу, Чешское радио - Радио Прага

The traditional parties on the Czech political scene arte still stinging from the defeat they suffered in the general elections at the hands of anti-establishment and protest parties. What made Czechs throw the traditional parties overboard in favour of the Pirates, the nationalist Freedom and Direct Democracy Party and, most of all, place their trust in the leader of the ANO party, Andrej Babiš, who was recently charged with EU subsidy fraud?

Jan Hartl,  photo: STEM
To find out the answers I spoke to sociologist Jan Hartl, head of the STEM polling agency, and first asked why close to half of Czechs did not appear to mind the prospect of a prime minister who’d been accused of EU subsidy fraud.

“It’s a strong argument. People think that it is up to the courts to decide about his guilt or innocence, but they don’t see it as a crucial factor in their voting decision.”

So, they have accepted Mr. Babiš’s claim that he is innocent and that this is a slander campaign against him. What do they expect from him? Why are they giving him their vote?

“You know, in many Western countries, including the United States, Germany and so on, the biggest issue in elections is the strength of leadership of the various candidates. It’s no coincidence that the Czech language does not have an equivalent for the English word “leadership”, it has no expression that would not sound very strange to our ears. However, leadership is clearly important. The personality of individual leaders is not the only deciding force, but it is a major factor. There is only one strong leader on our contemporary political scene and that’s Andrej Babiš. And there is a second leader, emerging, and that’s Tomio Okamura. Those two parties got very strong support, and they did not get it by chance.”

“It’s no coincidence that the Czech language does not have an equivalent for the English word “leadership”, it has no expression that would not sound very strange to our ears.”

Where do Mr. Okamura’s strengths lie? What did he get the votes for? Is it in connection with the migrant crisis? Because there are very few migrants here….

“Yes, the migrant crisis is the most important vehicle for his support, but he is also attacking the Islamic world in general, he is advocating direct democracy, stressing the need for pubic referendums, and we know from our surveys that these views are supported by around eighty percent of Czechs. He also claims that it is necessary that voters have the right to dismiss their politicians if they do not perform properly and given the fact that political parties have a very low prestige in our country, around twenty-five percent, and this is something which is clearly populist. Okamura is also very active, he displays a lot of energy, and he can appeal to people who want to cast protest votes. In the past, protest votes were mainly allocated to the Communists, but now the Communists have competition, as far as protest votes are concerned, people are now giving their protest votes to Okamura’s Freedom and Direct Democracy Party and also to the Pirates. This explains why support for the Communists dropped to a record low since the fall of communism in 1989.”

The Pirates,  photo: ČTK
So, what did the Pirates do right? How come they’ve suddenly gained so much support?

“The Pirates received strong support from young people. It is not so much a catch-all party, but rather a catch-all- young-people party. We observed in our surveys that young people who feel politically responsible and want to vote did not have a proper choice on our political scene. They simply did not know what to do with their vote and the Pirates were clever in addressing that need. They showed a determination to play a strong role in Parliament and many young people decided to give them a chance.”

Would you say that Czech voters make a highly emotional decision when they go to the polls?

ANO party,  photo: ČTK
“Yes, that is true of our elections. There was not much rational choice. It was mainly emotional. This was also in response to the fact that the general public was long disenchanted by the political situation. So, the overwhelming victory of Mr. Babiš and his ANO party was no surprise for pollsters. It was a bit of a surprise that previously strong parties, such as the Communist Party, did badly, they showed no energy and were subsequently punished by the voters.”

How many of the voters that went to the polls do you think really gave their vote to a party that they trusted and wanted to support, and how many voters chose the lesser of two evils, so to speak? Or, else cast their vote to balance-out the result in some way?

“We asked this question in our latest polls and it would seem that voters with a deep motivation, with a strong choice were deep under fifty percent. There are just two to three parties - the Christian Democrats, the Communists and the Civic Democrats that have a strong core of loyal voters, and all together they represented about thirty percent of the votes. We know from our surveys that one month before the elections only half of the population was decided that they would attend the election and vote. And according to our survey, many voters left their decision until election day - a last-minute, on-the-spot decision was made by fifteen percent of voters, which is a relatively high number.”

Did the manner of campaigning make a difference? What kind of campaigns do the Czechs respond best to?

“I believe that this campaign was by far the worst election campaign in the country’s modern history.”

“Well, I might say that I am a professional observer of all election campaigns, and I believe that this campaign was by far the worst campaign in the history of post-communist Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. There was no leading issue, it even looked as though the parties were afraid of raising any important issues because they were small- hearted, they did not have a strong commitment to any issues of importance for the society. They were afraid of the fact that if the issues were raised, then they would be controversial. Therefore, they just trumpeted plain and empty slogans, and said that something should be done with regard to a given problem. But they did not say who should do it, how it should be done and so on. The campaign was clearly empty and lacking in any meaningful content.”

The Social Democrats,  photo: ČTK
It is funny that of the three parties, in the outgoing coalition government, ANO scored such a huge success and the other two parties did miserably (the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats). Why were they not able to take credit for what the government did? Because, the economy is doing exceptionally well, unemployment is the lowest in Europe...

“Clearly the other two parties in the Sobotka government, which wasn’t perceived as bad by the population, were unable to take credit for the positive results of their own efforts. Instead, they were consumed by an obsession to criticize Andrej Babiš and it was especially harmful for the Social Democrats who had their prime minister and could have communicated their success much better, but instead, they were obsessed with personal attacks against Andrej Babiš in a situation where it was clear that the Social Democrats were fast losing voters to ANO. The whole situation was not properly understood and was not properly evaluated.”

“All Babiš had to do was to keep smiling and to let his opponents make mistakes during the campaign.”

On the other hand, Mr. Babis, as a successful businessman, had a brilliant marketing campaign…

“He had quite a good campaign. In fact, it was quite sufficient for him to stay calm and to just defend himself against the most severe attacks. To keep smiling, and to let his opponents make mistakes during the campaign. I think that this was the most important thing.”

So what is the main message to be learnt from these elections, in particular, for the traditional parties?

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů,  Radio Prague International
“This is not an easy question to answer, but from my point of view, as an analyst, it is necessary that our politicians should take seriously the need for a thorough and deep analysis of what’s going on in society. They need to try to understand the attitudes of people and collect feedback on their policies and so on. This hasn’t been happening in the past five to ten years. The polices were built purely on the motivation of a group of not very well-informed people and some of the policies were clearly mistakes. There is also a lack of proper communication about the decisions made. In our present situation, with all of the social media, official statements can easily be confronted with other views. I believe that especially the traditional parties will need to look at how to reconstitute their former appeal in a situation where the old schemes of left and right ideology have less and less relevance to the general public.”

Finally, some people have voiced concern that the outcome of the general elections, the set- up of Parliament and possibly the new coalition that will emerge may present a threat to democracy in this country, and may even radically change the Czech Republic’s foreign policy. Do you agree with that?

“Not really. I believe that that really overstates the problem. I think that the result of the election will, in itself, not lead to the weakening of democracy in general. It certainly depends on the activities of the defeated parties as well as the challenges that have arisen for the parties that are newly elected to Parliament. We not only have a lower chamber of Parliament, but also an upper chamber, the Senate, we have relatively free media and I think this is a good time for a “reset” meaning that we should take the political situation seriously and also keep in mind that, in a way, the Czech Republic still stands on a crossroad between East and West, and needs to decide where it will head with full responsibility.”