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Polarisation and populism

Economic crisis will further polarise political scene


The current economic crisis will most likely bring further polarisation to the Czech political scene, which can be observed since last year's parliamentary elections. Most people will see their financial situation worsen significantly, while the overall state of the economy and their own individual economic situation are mostly attributed to governments. According to Vlastimil Havlík, a political scientist at the National Institute for Research on the Socioeconomic Impacts of Diseases and Systemic Risks (SYRI), the current government is not helped by the fact that its real possibilities of influencing inflation and energy prices are very limited. Politicisation of these issues was also evident during Saturday’s anti-government demonstration in Prague.

The main topics of the last few months, such as the war in Ukraine, rising energy prices and inflation, are somewhat forcing the dominantly right-wing government to take steps that are more familiar from the left, which may cause tensions within the ruling parties. "The deterioration of the economic situation for most people is likely to bring about a decline in trust in the ruling parties, perhaps even more social unrest, and may lead to a strengthening of the currently opposition parties," Havlík said, adding that the current main themes of the Czech presidency significantly reinforce the conflict between right-wing and left-wing politics, which was weakened in the last elections, and put the emphasis on economic issues.

SYRI researchers analysed the polarisation on the Czech political scene from last year's parliamentary elections to the present. According to the researchers, last year's victory of SPOLU and PirStan was based on an anti-populist campaign, which was basically a logical reaction to ANO and also SPD. "But such a campaign inherently carries risks. The campaign of the election winners was based both on negativity and on a highly moralistic and, by implication, irreconcilable appeal, and, like populism, it contributes to polarisation," said Havlík, who, together with his colleague Alena Kluknavská, analysed the Czech political scene in an article for the prestigious Journal of Common Market Studies.

The researchers point out, among other things, that while the winning coalition claimed to be delivering decent and honest policies, substantive solutions took a back seat. "This may disappoint voters for two reasons. Politics itself is not a world of decency and fairness, but a power struggle, a pragmatic resolution of disputes, and full of compromise. Or this moral appeal may be hard to fulfill. Secondly, there has not been much debate on substantive solutions to issues such as taxes, pensions, transport, the environment or the rights of sexual minorities," Havlík said. This fact, he said, means that the gradually emerging positions of each party may come as a "surprise" to voters of both coalitions and also cause disputes within the governing coalition.

Further developments will depend on external factors, such as the huge jump in energy prices in recent days - i.e. how the government handles the problem and how the opposition takes advantage of the opportunity. "I expect a significant resurgence in the importance of economic issues and a strengthening of the polarisation around them. This is a very big opportunity for ANO, which did not do very well during the pandemic, but thanks to previous macroeconomic growth and a very strong redistributive policy, it can be perceived by a significant part of the electorate as a competent alternative to the government. After all, it is already trying to get into this role with its campaign "It was better under Babiš", Havlík said.

He said ANO has been currently taking over the voter base of Social Democracy and the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and is acting as an advocate for left-wing voters. The movement is now voted for by older people and those who are economically worse off and expect a strong role for the state. In the Czech environment, which is characterised by a resistance to traditional parties, the scholar believes that space opened up for so-called centrist populism, which is characterised by the absence of a clear ideological orientation, replaced by an emphasis on seemingly non-political or non-partisan solutions. "This is how Babiš succeeded with the story of a non-political manager who will make the state more efficient and replace the corrupt world of political parties," Havlík said, adding that ANO's rhetoric has shifted over time and is somewhat similar to the story of the left-wing populist party Směr in Slovakia. Only the next months and years will tell how the situation will develop. Havlík said the ruling coalition is helped by the fact that the next parliamentary elections are not until three years from now.


Doc. Mgr. et Mgr. Vlastimil Havlík Ph.D.

Position: Senior researcher
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