With 99.95 percent of ballots counted, Andrej Babiš’s populist party, ANO, has won a large plurality of the vote in the Czech Republic – nearly 30 percent, Czech news agency Novinky reports.
In addition to placing Babiš in the premiership of the country, his party will take 78 seats in parliament, with Civic Democratic Party (ODS) in second place and a virtual tie for third between the Pirate Party and the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD).
Babiš, a businessman who made a fortune in the post-communist 1990s with his holding company Agrofert, founded ANO in 2011 on an explicitly anti-establishment agenda, promising to fight corruption, take on unemployment, and speak in a variety of ways for widespread distrust of bureaucrats in Prague and Brussels (ANO, which means “yes” in Czech, is also an acronym for Akce nespokojených občanů or “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”). His signature outreach strategy is to hand out donuts at busy metro stations in Prague.
In recent years, the party has adopted an explicitly nationalistic, eurosceptic, and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Speaking of German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, for example, Babiš told one Reuters reporter, “It was she who let migrants enter Germany and the whole of Europe in uncontrolled waves…There is no place for them in Europe.” It is this kind of rhetoric, along with Babiš’s outsider billionaire status and looming financial fraud, that has earned him the nickname “the Czech Donald Trump.”
But ANO is not the only party in the Czech Republic that has benefited from rising anti-immigration sentiments. A poll in 2016 shows growing support for more than seven hard-line nationalist parties, according to the Prague Monitor, including The Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), led by Tomio Okamura, which won 11 percent of the vote in today’s election.
Like ANO, the SPD has grown its base by courting a growing eurosceptic and anti-immigration culture in the Czech Republic. The party has also made inroads with its counterparts in France, the far-right National Front, and Marine Le Pen has voiced support for the SPD in the past.
Many have sought to explain the rise of right-wing populism by citing labor frictions and economic instability caused by globalization, a situation best illustrated by Branko Milanovic’s now famous “Elephant chart.”
But by far the most important issue driving the shift to the right, from Brexit in the UK to the National Front in France, and from the Alternative for Germany to the Freedom Party of Austria, is the fear of immigration – or, in any case, a loose-knit collection of anxieties that the anti-immigration stance in general, and anti-Muslim rhetoric in particular, has come to stand for.
One poll published earlier this year by the London-based think tank Chatham House shows 55 percent of Europeans on average believe migration from Muslim countries should be stopped. These numbers tend to be higher among those countries polled in Central Europe (71 percent in Poland and 65 percent in Austria).
In recent elections in Germany, where anti-immigration sentiment polls at 53 percent, far-right populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) captured more than 13 percent of the vote and 94 seats in parliament, fully tripling its support since 2013. As the new parliament prepares to convene this week, it will be the first time since the fall of the Third Reich that an explicitly nationalistic party will be represented in the Bundestag.
There are, however, compelling reasons to believe that these two issues, globalization and anti-immigration sentiments, are intrinsically connected. Robert Gold of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany, for example, has presented evidence of a direct correlation between labor frictions and the rise of the right-wing populist fringe in Germany and believes his model can be applied to the global trend.
In the post-Cold War era, centrist parties in Europe and America have consistently pushed for free trade and a neoliberal economic order, one in which global market forces would become more and more central in the organization of the social and political life of the country. While this has proven effective in building and maintaining political power, it has also made it difficult for centrist parties to speak effectively for labor-related anxieties exacerbated by a dynamic global market, including the generalized fear of losing individual agency that is connected to a loss of agency at the national level.
The emergent right-wing fringe has been able to win the support of this constituency by offering a narrative that is compelling – if simplistic and irrational – based on the scapegoating of immigrants and racial minorities.
“But the data is complicated,” Gold explains.
“On the one hand, growing support for the AfD in Germany follows a trend that you now see all across the world. In countries like England and the U.S., there is a strong link between right-wing populism and economic factors connected to globalization…What’s curious is that – at least in economic terms – eastern Germany [which largely supported the AfD] has done quite well, especially over the last decade.”
The same paradox can be found in the results of the Czech election. Since joining the European Union in 2004, the Czech Republic has become the most prosperous country of the former communist bloc, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. The standard of living is higher than many of its EU neighbors, and on a chart plotting GDP growth, it can be found in the middle or slightly ahead of the field. Still, of all countries polled, approval of the EU is lowest in the Czech Republic.
And this points to the basic success of the new Czech Prime Minister, who is also the second richest man in the country. Like Donald Trump, he finds himself in an ideal position to speak for the wealthiest one percent of the electorate, while marshaling his outsider status (and free donuts) to win over skeptics of the globalist EU agenda and domestic ruling elite.
[Featured Image by Petr David Josek/AP Images]