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Spotlight: The Czech parliamentary opposition

Andrej Babiš’ loss in the January 2023 presidential election carries implications not only for his - and the largest opposition - party ANO but for the entire Czech political scene. Keep reading for a concise analysis of the situation and what its meaning for political stability in the Czech Republic.

“New” faces

First of all, we must not forget that despite losing, Andrej Babiš - and by proxy also his party, as it has been interpreted by vice-chairman Karel Havlíček - still gained 2,4 million votes. For comparison, that was almost one million more than during the parliamentary election of 2017, after which ANO was in charge of the government. This result, therefore, is not one to be dismissed. ANO is to maintain a strong presence in Czech politics.

Despite this, one could expect that in light of the highly polarising presidential campaign and third consecutive electoral loss, it may be time for ANO to recalibrate its approach. The ANO leadership met on February 8th and, after some speculations to the contrary, confirmed that Andrej Babiš would remain the head of the party as well as its active MP in the House of Representatives. Importantly, however, Mr Babiš has announced he will be stepping back from media appearances and dialing back his political activities, to instead be replaced by the party’s two vice-chairs: Alena Schillerová and Karel Havlíček. As such, the party appears to be adopting the “Polish model” of party politics, where the leader remains in control without being the face of the party. In the case of ANO, this may remove a key reason why some voters feel they cannot give the party their support: while they may not have had an issue with the party itself, many found Mr Babiš unacceptable. Prior to the election, 41% of people declared their emotions toward Mr Babiš as “strongly negative”.

Go left

The large support for the party indicates the ongoing division of Czech society and the fact that over 50% of people do not trust and feel unrepresented or unseen by the current centre-right government coalition. Usually comprised of voters of either left-wing or non-conformist parties, this group has already proven a source of support for ANO. Despite the party’s original focus on fighting corruption and securing better business conditions, it has since reoriented itself to more left-wing policies, such as yearly pension increases between 2018 and 2020 during its government years, as well as major government subsidies for students’ and senior citizens’ travel costs. As a result, the party scooped up former voters of the communists and the social democrats, which proceeded to lose their positions in Parliament in 2021 and local councils in 2022. The Czech political spectrum was thus left without a traditional left wing with ANO becoming the only party offering somewhat left-wing policies.

ANO is now changing tack in an effort to gain support from the voters of anti-system parties SPD and Trikolora. PAQ Research revealed that up to 50% of SPD voters supported Mr Babiš’ bid for the presidency in the first round despite the candidacy of their own party candidate. Furthermore, STEM/MARK agency analyst Jan Burianec indicates about a third of SPD voters would currently also vote for ANO in a parliamentary election. Following its leadership meeting, ANO has announced that the party will now be actively campaigning for the votes of SPD voters. Furthermore, a row has emerged between the party leaders, with Mr Babiš openly criticising SPD leader Tomio Okamura for not supporting him during the second round of the presidential election and thus “betraying” his voters. While Mr Okamura denies the ANO strategy should significantly disturb his voter base, this will continue to drive the two parties further away from each other and impede their potential to cooperate in the current opposition.

ANO is clearly attempting to monopolise the opposition. There is a catch, however. The numbers indicate that while attracting voters of other opposition parties has and should continue to go smoothly, it may also present an irreversible change of the party’s image that will lose ANO its original moderate base. Former vice-chair of the party Ivo Vondrák, who openly refused to support Mr Babiš’ bid for the presidency, argues that ANO needs to return to its purpose and identity as a “catch-all party” in the centre of the political spectrum. With the recent developments in mind, however, it seems that ANO is taking the term “catch-all” to new heights, instead focusing on voters lacking representation in Parliament.

The bigger picture

As far as the current government is concerned, the shifts in ANO policy likely present no immediate danger to the country’s political stability. It is certainly worth noting that the major support Mr Babiš received in the presidential election came from voters struggling with the cost of living crisis and rising debts while feeling that the government does not care about their situation. If the government does not improve its messaging and stance on these matters, this will likely translate into support for a party that promises to do things differently. Come the 2025 parliamentary election, that may very well be ANO.

A valid question in case ANO did win in 2025 would of course be whether the party could create a coalition if necessary. The party proves to be thinking ahead, having moved the highly polarising Mr Babiš into the background and instead pushing forward two well-known but less controversial politicians in his stead. That, however, is not a recipe for guaranteed success. Furthermore, ANO has either eliminated (the social democrats and the communists) or alienated (SPD) its potential partners, further limiting its options.

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