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A Crisis of Liberal Democracy? Not on the Local Level

Local elections in the Czech Republic and Poland demonstrate that not all is lost.

by Martin Ehl 18 October 2018

Local elections seem an unimportant act of democratic governance – if you don't live in Central Europe under populist and nationalist pressure. If you do, local elections are where things are starting to change, as the Czech Republic and Poland show.


Local elections in the Czech Republic 10 days ago, which led to coalition negotiations in urban constituencies, could shake up national politics and undermine the strong position of Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s governing coalition – with other, more profound consequences for traditional parties in general.


Poland's local and regional elections next weekend will be an important test for all parties, especially the opposition, in advance of the “superelectoral” year of 2019, when Poles will elect their country’s members of the European Parliament in the spring and their national representatives in the autumn. Poland's center-right – the Civic Platform and parties – is trying out an alliance against the governing conservative right, and the left is attempting to reinvent itself.


Far from being petty, parochial affairs, local elections can show quite profoundly the real power of political parties and liberal democracy, which many pundits believe are struggling.


If Czech elections are any guide, then the left is in big trouble. The Social Democrats were treated harshly in the polls, as well as the Communists. Both parties are part of the governing coalition on the national level, along with the ANO movement of billionaire Babis (the Communists officially aren’t part of the coalition but have pledged support to the government). However, it was the liberal ANO that captured the majority of voters in that left-leaning coalition. (ANO stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” – the initials are a play on words for “Yes" in Czech).


However, these elections represented the first time when ANO had to defend its positions, and it did not go so well. ANO itself, portrayed by its chief and founder as a party fighting traditional politicians, lost enormously in the Czech capital Prague, and is also struggling to form coalitions in some other cities.


Another interesting phenomenon is the power of the traditional Christian Democrats. The party, which now struggles to enter parliament on the national level, where there is a 5 percent threshold, still performs strongly in local elections.


That will be worth watching in neighboring Poland, where the traditional People's Party – whose electorate is more rural – is in a face-to-face fight with the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party.


There are newcomers everywhere, which could bring voters hope for profound change.


In the Czech Republic, the nationalistic, even fascist SPD party – led by the half-Japanese Tomio Okamura – proved a political force only through the provocative words of its strong leader: it did not succeed locally.


By contrast, Jan Cizinsky, a former Christian Democrat turned independent politician, showed himself a rising star in Prague, where he surprisingly polled on the same level as other big parties. Cizinsky became famous for his work as mayor in one of Prague's districts, and has built on that. It will be interesting to see if his independent movement shatters the traditional circles of Prague politics, and ends up joining the Czech Republic's numerous, small liberal forces.


Speaking of liberals, their new favorite movement seems to be the Pirates (yes, we do have a Pirate Party in the Czech Republic). They have finally established themselves as a nationwide force that performed strongly with left-leaning urban voters.


Meanwhile, in Poland on the left, there have been intriguing developments based on local success. Robert Biedron – the openly gay mayor of Slupsk, a city in northern Poland – has started to build his own party for next year's elections. He will not be able to field local candidates across Poland, but he has a chance to enter European and national parliamentary polling. There is currently no left-leaning party in the Polish parliament, and as a fresh face in Polish politics, it seems the field is clear for Biedron.


In these harsh times, in which there is a lot of talk about a crisis in liberal democracy, in practice, liberal democracy is actually working promisingly on the local level. At least it is happening somewhere!


Martin Ehl
is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily.
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