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Czech voters want change

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck
October 11, 2021

In the Czech national election, a majority of people voted for a new democratic beginning. It will not be easy, but the election result was an important signal for Europe, says Keno Verseck.

 Andrej Babis: man wearing face mask and holding a piece of paper walks by wooden partition
Andrej Babis, seen here in a polling station on October 8, suffered a widely unexpected election defeatImage: Ondrej Deml/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

It was a turning-point election, a choice between West and East, between the Czech Republic's return to a democratic Europe or its final shift in the same direction as Orban-style Hungary, into the iron grip of Russia and China. Well-known liberal Czech commentators did not hold back on dramatic warnings and gloom-mongering in the run-up to the country's parliamentary election on Saturday.

But now, everyone who, like them, feared the worst for the Czech Republic can breathe a sigh of relief. Things have turned out differently than almost all the polls predicted. Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic's controversial prime minister, and his ruling ANO party have lost the vote for the Chamber of Deputies, the Czech Parliament's key chamber.

For years, Babis, a billionaire, has had the Czech Republic on edge with his endless scandals, conflicts of interest, lies and demagoguery. Just a few days ago, the Pandora Papers revealed how he likely used offshore shell companies and possibly laundered money. Now, according to liberal-conservative opposition leader Petr Fiala, the Czech Republic has voted for change — for an end to corrupt politics and institutionalized racketeering and for a new beginning informed by honesty, transparency and credible democracy.

The new beginning is bound to be difficult. Babis may have said he would retire from politics if he lost the election, but in reality, he has no such intention. And he has a powerful ally to help him carry on — President Milos Zeman, 77, once a staunch opponent of the communist dictatorship and a respectable social democrat, now a friend to Russia and China, a lackey for an extreme right-wing Czech party and an inveterate hater of independent journalism.

Presumably, Zeman — currently being treated in hospital for an undisclosed condition — will first ask Babis to form a new government. He is likely to try to force individual parties out of the two opposition alliances that form the majority, Spolu (Together) and Pirates/STAN. Both alliances have categorically ruled out cooperation with Babis. But with Zeman's help, Babis could continue to rule for months. Should that happen, Zeman would once again prove to be a tragic evil for Czech democracy — along with Babis.

Keno Verseck
DW's Keno VerseckImage: privat

Nevertheless, the outcome of the Czech parliamentary vote is good news for a democratically minded Europe. It is too soon to proclaim the end of an era in Central and Southeastern Europe that is commonly labeled as populist, but in fact consists in corrupt authoritarianism paired with an ideological superstructure of nationalist demagoguery.

People in the region are increasingly fed up with the false promises made by autocrats including Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vucic; they are fed up with political despotism, a lack of transparency, corruption, unsustainable governance and a lack of prospects — as is now the case in the Czech Republic.

That should give Berlin, Brussels and Paris pause for thought. Politicians there have been too hesitant and too lenient with people like Orban and Babis for far too long, or have allowed themselves to be fooled. Now a clear majority of people in the Czech Republic have decided: No more!

This article has been translated from German.

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter