By Declan Carey
CARRYING flags and banners, thousands of Czechs gather on a chilly December evening in Prague, demanding the resignation of the prime minister.
They meet at symbolic places, Wenceslas Square; Letna park, imitating the same marches which sparked the famous Velvet Revolution in 1989 after years of communist rule.
But this was 2019 not 1989, and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš is not a communist, but a populist billionaire, leader of the ANO coalition government in power since 2017.
Accused of misusing millions of EU funds, Babiš brought back painful memories for many Czechs of political figures bending the rules for personal gain.
And in the first round of Czech senate and regional elections since Covid-19 put the world into lockdown, there is a sense of frustration among voters.
“The ruling movement is not as strong as comparable movements in the region” Petr Kratochvíl, from the Institute of International Relations Prague, told Redaction Politics.
Supported by the traditionally left wing Social Democratic Party and Communist Party, an unusual combination of allies allows ANO to get business done.
But as “opposition parties are getting stronger”, with the Pirate Party and Civil Democratic Party picking up a number of regional councils, Petr believes the results reflect a failure of the left to assert influence with the right type of voters.
“The left has almost entirely disappeared with the social democrats and communists suffering heavy losses.
“The paradox is that the two left wing parties in the Czech political spectrum support the government of a billionaire and interestingly the voters are moving from these parties to the movement of the billionaire.
“The trend is similar to the situation in the United States where the dissatisfied voters who feel marginalised and ignored by the ruling liberal elite move to the billionaires to express dissatisfaction.
“But in the Czech context the result is that the left is heavily losing.
“They are very much orientated towards the older generation like pensioners.
“And this strategy is failing because pensioners are the biggest group who vote for the ruling movement ANO.”
In the regional elections, ANO took around 20 per cent of the vote, winning 178 seats.
The Social Democratic Party lost 88 seats, while the Pirate Party picked up 94, continuing an upward trend since establishment in 2009.
Around the region, populism remains strong.
In neighbouring Poland, right wing Andrzej Duda from the Law and Justice Party has faced criticism for hitting out at the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights.
While in Hungary, Viktor Orbán of Fidesz has been Prime Minister since 2010, often cutting an authoritarian figure while creating laws to force out the George Soros-backed Central European University.
The Visegrád Group of countries which joined the European Union in 2004 has long been home to assertive political leaders advocating a particular worldview.
But from the results of the Czech regional and senate elections, what message are voters trying to get across?
“In a sense, it is a warning” Petr tells me, as Czechia prepares for the more significant Chamber of Deputies election next year.
“The result in the election we will have next year, what we might have is ANO as the winner but with very little coalition potential.
“All the smaller opposition parties may join forces and they have done so successfully already in this election.
“And together they have many more votes and seats than the ruling party.
“The winner might be left outside and the new prime minister may be from the opposition parties.
“Unlike in Poland or in Hungary where you have the real authoritarian populists, that is definitely not the case in the Czech Republic.”
The second round of senate voting takes place on Friday 9 and Saturday 10 October.
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