We are continuing with our series of reports concerning the EU parliamentary elections. Like other articles before it, this report borders on the surreal. The leader of the party that won the most EU parliamentary votes and seats in the Czech Republic has been charged with defrauding the EU of a €2 million subsidy. The Social Democrats have been wiped out altogether. Quite a read.
The European elections in the Czech Republic saw a number of new MEPs elected, with the Pirate Party and the anti-EU Freedom and Direct Democracy among the main winners. Monika Brusenbauch Meislova assesses what the outcome of the vote means for Czech politics.
Monika Brusenbauch Meislova is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic.
Cross-posted from LSE EUROPP
Photo Credit: adammracek (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The Czech Republic is known for having a low level of public trust in the EU (the third lowest among the EU28 after the UK and Greece) and a strong tradition of party-based Euroscepticism. This year’s European elections marked the fourth time that the country had chosen its representatives in the European Parliament (EP).
With 21 seats at stake in the 751-seat European Parliament, the Czech Republic is the only EU member state in which EP elections take place over a period of two days. MEPs are elected by proportional representation with a 5% election threshold for political parties. This year, the number of parties and movements that entered the elections reached their highest level ever, with 39 in total, fielding 841 candidates. The overall number of candidates was a bit lower than five years ago (down from 849) but the number of non-affiliated candidates was slightly up. The average age of the candidates was 47.8 years and 23.9% of them were women. As elsewhere in the EU, European topics were somewhat eclipsed by domestic fights and issues during the election campaign. Most candidates advocated some kind of EU reform, but failed to move beyond superficial and vaguely worded rhetoric.
A notable aspect of the 2019 elections was the rather high (that is, by Czech standards) turnout. This reached 28.7%, which was a substantial rise from 18.2% in the last elections in 2014 and similar to the figures in the country’s first-ever EP elections in 2004 (28.3%). Yet, despite soaring to a 15-year high, the turnout was still the third lowest in the EU (after Slovenia and Slovakia), lagging significantly behind the EU average of 51%.
Just like five years ago, seven political parties and movements crossed the 5% threshold and entered the European Parliament. At 37.4%, the percentage of women MEPs is at an all-time high (9.5 points up on 2014 and 15.1 points up on the 2009 EP elections). By contrast, at 46.1 years, the average age of Czech MEPs is at an all-time low (0.9 years down on 2014 and 3.6 years down on the 2009 EP elections).
As expected, the elections were won by the ruling centre-right populist ANO 2011 party led by the current Prime Minister and billionaire media tycoon, Andrej Babiš, which secured 21.2% of the vote and 6 MEPs (+2 seats compared to the 2014 EP elections). With Babiš wearing a Trump-inspired red baseball cap emblazoned with a “Strong Czechia“ slogan, ANO’s campaign called for the strengthening of individual EU member countries within the EU decision-making system and focused on issues such as rules on the dual quality of food, immigration policy and security.
ANO won the elections despite the fact that its leader has been charged with defrauding the EU of a €2 million subsidy and amidst large, nation-wide protests (which Babiš claims are just an intensive campaign directed against him) over his appointment of a new justice minister, Marie Benešová, shortly after the police recommended that he should face a trial over it. For a celebrating Babiš, the party’s ‘resounding’ victory was clear evidence that his ‘government was working’ and ‘was working excellently’, thereby taking advantage of the fact that the Czech economy is currently going through a period of great prosperity. Yet, many put his victory into question, claiming that it was much less impressive when compared to the 29.6% the party received in the October 2017 parliamentary election. Interestingly, ANO came only fourth in Prague, the country’s capital, which was won by the opposition Allies for Europe.
The centre-right, conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which focused its campaign – similarly to ANO – on the need to protect Czech national interests by strengthening the position of member states within the EU institutional framework, made strong gains to finish second on 14.5% of the vote and 4 seats (+2 seats compared to EP elections five years ago). Right behind came the pro-European, liberal, centrist Pirate Party (Piráti) which centred its campaign around topics such as the fight against corruption, internet freedom, individual and digital rights, sustainable agriculture, environmental protection and renewable energy. The party won 13.95% of the vote and 3 seats, thus securing representation in the European Parliament for the first time in its history.
The fourth place was secured by the Allies for Europe electoral coalition, consisting of two conservative, pro-European parties: TOP 09 and the Mayors and Independents (STAN). Having based its campaign on calls for a common migration policy within the EU and stressing the importance of regional development, the alliance managed to win 11.7% (3 seats), prompting arguments about the usefulness of this collaboration for future elections.
The far-right, anti-migrant and unequivocally anti-EU Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) led by a Japanese born Czech nationalist, Tomio Okamura, secured 9.1% and 2 seats, putting it in fifth place and marking the first time the party had gained representation in the European parliament. Having entered the lower house of the Czech parliament only after the October 2017 election, it is currently the most Eurosceptic party in the parliament. The party explicitly calls for a Czech in/out referendum and Czexit (its manifesto literally states: “Let’s leave the English way”), and ran its campaign on a strong anti-immigration platform.
The centrist Christian Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (KUD-ČSL) secured 7.2% and 2 seats, a loss of 1 seat when compared to 2014. The last party to have crossed the electoral threshold of 5% was the soft-Eurosceptic Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) which formed the “Czech Left Together” electoral coalition and received 6.9% (1 seat, down from 2 seats in the 2014 elections).
Out with the old, in with the new
The elections saw two parties previously elected to the EP lose their representation. When it comes to the mainstream, established parties, it was the centre-left Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) – ANO’s junior partner in the two-party coalition government – which took the biggest blow. The party received a mere 3.95% of the vote, a rather brutal drop of 10.2% from its 2014 result, and failed to gain representation in the European Parliament for the first time in its history. The ČSSD fought the campaign mostly on an affordable housing platform, and its net loss of 4 seats compared to the previous elections lends further support to claims about the decline of traditional parties in Czech politics.
Another Czech party that completely lost its representation in the EP was the far-right Free (Svobodní) which won a mere 0.7% of the vote, losing its only seat in the parliament. In addition, some of the most influential incumbent Czech representatives with substantial European Parliament expertise were not re-elected in 2019. Most prominently, the EP Vice-President Pavel Telička, who ran the elections as a candidate for his newly established pro-European liberal party Voice (2.4%), and Pavel Svoboda, chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs, who contested the elections as the leader of the Christian Democrats’ EP election list but lost his seat due to preferential voting.
Combined with two parties entering the European Parliament for the first time in 2019 (the Pirate Party and SPD, as outlined above), there has been a significant change in the country’s representation. In total, 11 out of the 21 incoming Czech MEPs have been newly elected, which means they will need to be taught their way around the EP system when the new parliament gets to work.