Czech billionaire Andrej Babis' election victory has triggered widespread warnings of a shift to the political right in Eastern Europe. We should avoid making such blanket generalizations, however, writes Keno Verseck.
Earthquake, hurricane, tsunami: There was no shortage of colorful catastrophic comparisons following Saturday's general election in the Czech Republic. About 60 percent of voters in one of Central and Eastern Europe's shining examples of democracy opted for anti-establishment parties, despite the fact the country has a prospering economy. The dramatic electoral shift in a European Union member state is cause for concern.
Around the EU there is talk of Eastern Europe tilting ever further to the right. It may seem that the Czech Republic is following a similar path forged by Hungary and Poland, but despite the consternation brought on by the election results, differences abound. Alarming statements about the East's euroskepticism and rightward shifts are generalizations that explain very little.
A poisonous political climate
Broadly speaking, Czech anti-establishment voters are hardly right-wing radicals. They are fed up with the stagnation of the political elite. Important social, health and education reforms have been lagging for years; clientelism and nepotism reign supreme at the local and regional level; and part of Czech society fears it is on the losing end of modernization.
Meanwhile politicians like President Milos Zeman have long injected political poison into public discourse with repeated biting remarks about the EU, refugees, and general humanitarian values and liberal democracy.
Andrej Babis, the billionaire founder of the victorious ANO party, sometimes fosters this kind of discourse. He won over a majority of his voters with promises of cleaning up the country and putting an end to corruption. The irony to such claims cannot be overlooked, seeing that Babis is himself is part of the Czech elite and embroiled in financial scandal.
Unlike leaders such as Hungary's Viktor Orban and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Babis is neither a nationalist nor a chauvinist, and he lacks any sort of significant anti-democratic vision. He is more the type of ambitious, self-important oligarch who believes his autocratic brand of business would do the country good. That sort of authoritarian thinking represents the danger Babis poses.
Alarm bells for political elite
It remains to be seen how much influence Babis may have over the country's future. He needs to build a government, which will be hard seeing that hardly anyone is willing to join his ANO party in a coalition. Over the years, Babis has pushed out a number of the smart people from his party he would need to bring about all of his nice-sounding plans for a better economy and more efficiency. As head of state, he will no longer be able to play the role of opposition within the government, which he did as finance minister from 2014 until May this year. He could see his popularity dip accordingly.
Lastly, Babis has not presented any fundamentally anti-European plans. His rejection of EU refugee policy remains the only aspect in line with the Visegrad countries of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The ANO victory is therefore in no way an indication of a strengthening of the increasingly divergent Visegrad Group.
The victory should sound the alarm for the many demonized elites in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. If they don't want to be swept away by obscure, anti-establishment forces, they have to sincerely embrace a more transparent, accountable, sustainable and authentic democratic rule. That is the only way they will convince most voters.