In the last few years, right-wing populist parties have steadily strengthened throughout the Visegrád region. After Fidesz’s third consecutive two-thirds majority in Hungary, the solid PiS government in Poland and the initial success of Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, Central Europe has become a stronghold of right-wing populism. Furthermore, smaller extremist parties, such as the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) in the Czech Republic and the Kukiz ’15 movement in Poland have gained more ground, as well. However, with the last municipal elections in Poland and the Czech Republic, the election result of the populist parties seem to be less promising than previously expected.
Temporary losses or the beginning of the end?
Ever since being formed, the Czech government of Andrej Babiš has always stood on shaky grounds. After a six-month-long round of coalition negotiations, his party, ANO currently governs with the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the external support of the Czech communists (KSČM). The prime minister’s populist rhetoric, his alleged misuse of EU funds and him accepting the ‘help’ from the Communist Party have resulted in an ongoing political crisis that seriously hit ANO’s popularity.
Therefore, the biggest question of the municipal elections, that took place on October 5th and 6th was whether ANO could grow stronger, not only in the countryside, but in larger cities, as well. The answer was no.
In all major Czech cities, the support of the leading governing party have dropped. For example, in the second largest city, Brno, the entire opposition teamed up to keep ANO’s candidate away from the mayoral seat, and even the governing ČSSD joined this effort. But ANO’s greatest disappointment was not here, but the Czech capital. In 2017, ANO was the most popular party in Prague, but this time two opposition parties took the lead. The conservative-liberal Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Pirates Party achieved better results and took control of the city.
Czech rural areas have a strong tradition in electing independent leaders for leading local authorities. This year it was the same: most of the municipal government mandates were won by representatives of local organizations (even more than in 2014). However, from one of the ruling parties’ side, there was a more worrying development in these areas than in the cities. While ANO could keep its voter base, ČSSD lost half of its supporters and mandates.
In addition, the vote on senate seats also showed the strength of the occasional alliance of ODS and other small opposition parties. ANO and ČSSD was able to win in only a few districts, while ODS gave nine new senators to the Czech upper house. These momentums could indicate a shift in Czech domestic politics.
Being ‘only’ a municipal election, it would be early to presume the results of the next parliamentary election, but governing parties are very much less likely to pick up voters who favored independent candidates.
While the support of ANO decreased, its coalition partner drifted to the brink of falling apart. ČSSD is about to be in ruins and there is a growing dissatisfaction with Andrej Babiš himself. Half of the party blames the joint government with ANO for its bad results and demands to leave the coalition. These outcomes and scandals surrounding Babiš’s businesses have led to another, new domestic political crisis. Opposition parties tried to submit a motion of no-confidence while ANO could only rely on KSČM’s help. Simultaneously, in Prague, tens of thousands of protesters demanded the resignation of the government. It is worth noting, that only the two left-wing parties, the Social Democratic ČSSD (which, of course, didn’t want to lose position and power), and the communists voted in favor of Babiš. Even the far right SPD voted against him which is a strong indicator how great the dissatisfaction is with the ANO government.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is creating bigger and bigger gaps within the Polish society. Political issues like tensions with the EU, the abuse of rule of law and the migration crisis featured with increasing nationalist tendencies, social matters like the ban of abortion and the influence of the Catholic Church have divided the Polish electorate.
It’s fair to state that the East-West political divide is more or less traditional, but next to it a new one is getting stronger and more spectacular which is the urban–rural divide. The capital, with its prestige value and the bigger cities voted for the centrist opposition coalition (KO). In the countryside, PiS acquired 9 of the 16 voivodships. This made it possible for both parties to proclaim themselves as winners.
As for who the real winner was, what Polish politologist Rafał Chwedoruk said to Polish daily Rzeczpospolita may be the most accurate analysis: “With a boxing expression, it is a tie for the opposition’s advantage.”
Generally, there is no such big interest for local and regional elections than it is usually for parliamentary elections. Still, turnout this year was record high. KO was able to win the major cities and seven voivodships while PiS’ performance was under its national subsidy index, which means that with a relatively high turnout, proportionally they had fewer votes than the forecasts expected. The opposition turned out to be more effective in mobilizing its voters, which will be an important factor in next year’s European elections.
Moreover, it is not negligible that while the KO dominates cities, there is a challenger for PiS in the countryside. Although its support this year is far behind the ruling party, the Polish agrarian party, PSL could cause serious problems for Kaczyński’s PiS. It shouldn’t be forgotten, that in 2014, PSL was also the leader of three voivodships. Chwedoruk also said that the electoral ‘fight with PSL draw the limit of the government’s growth potential’.
What the two local elections have in common
The Czech and Polish elections show similarity in a number of aspects. In terms of popular support, the two right-wing parties, ANO and PiS seem to have reached their ceiling – for now. None of them could gain reverberating success, moreover, they performed under their nationwide support. Also, both parties spent vast amounts of money on campaigns, but their investment did not turn out to be profitable. For the next European and parliamentary elections, their reserves could only lie in rural areas between those voters who did not cast their vote this time. This mainly holds for the Czech case.
The next resemblance is that neither party can hope for increasing their governing potential with a possible coalition partner, because both parties are fully rejected by their opposition. This could give further confidence for the opposition parties. During parliamentary elections, a supposed co-operation could even lead to the change of government, especially in the Czech Republic.
It can be examined that the urban-rural divide is deepening throughout the Visegrád region. The base of (generally) liberal-leaning opposition parties are mainly in the cities, while government parties rely on the countryside to maintain their political support. The fact that cities and the capitals are mainly dominated by the opposition can be a key factor in the European elections for the Czech Republic and Poland. If the opposition manages to effectively mobilize its voters, just like they did this time, illiberal positions in Central Europe can be significantly weakened.
Author: Hunor Pop, junior member of CEA Hungary