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Pirates ahoy in the Czech election?

Pirates ahoy in the Czech election?

Demonstrators attend a protest rally demanding the resignation of Czech's Prime Minister Andrej Babis, in Prague.

REUTERS/David W Cerny

Voters in the Czech Republic head to the polls this weekend in a general election that features pirates.

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš — a Euroskeptic, big-spending populist billionaire with a support base among older, rural Czechs — is fighting for re-election against two main coalitions: a rag-tag center-right alliance called "Together", and a center-left alliance captained by the Czech Pirate Party.

The Czech Pirates are led by Ivan Bartoš, a dreadlocked former IT architect who plays the accordion. They call for progressive social and environmental policies, better relations with Brussels, and they have strong support from younger, urban Czechs. They're already the third largest party in parliament, and a Pirate is currently mayor of Prague.

Until recently, the Pirates had a commanding lead in polls. But poor messaging and a vicious counter attack from Babiš — who portrays them as pro-immigrant neo-Marxists — have hurt them. Babiš' ANO party now leads the polls with 26 percent, Together has 21 percent, while the Pirates sail in third place with 18 percent. None of that bodes well for coalition-building after the vote, with few clear paths to a government for any of the main blocs.

The election takes place against the backdrop of one of the world's worst COVID outbreaks, but with the pandemic receding, Czech voters are more concerned about economic issues now than about the public health crisis, Lenka Kabrhelová, host of Czech Radio's popular Vinohradská 12 news analysis podcast, told GZERO. Late in the campaign the anti-immigration Babiš also sought to make the threat of refugees a big issue, even though there are virtually none to speak of in the Czech Republic right now.

Babiš' opponents, meanwhile, will try to capitalize on the fact that although he was elected on an anti-corruption platform, he is currently under EU and Czech investigations for corruption and improperly steering EU funds towards his own businesses. Pandora Papers revelations about his luxe French villas won't help. But turnout will be key, says Kabrhelová — Babiš's die-hard older constituents tend to head to the polls en masse.

Presidential health wildcard: President Miloš Zeman, a close Babiš ally who is formally responsible for choosing who gets to form the government after the election, is severely ill, unable even to leave his home to cast a ballot. If he is incapacitated, it would throw a major wrench into the post-election works: the next in line of succession is a member of the opposition Together coalition.

Whoever wins will have big problems to work out. For one thing, the country's debt is soaring, which will force the next government to do something very unpopular — cut spending or raise taxes. There is a big foreign policy question as well. In recent years Babiš and president Zeman have aligned Prague more closely with EU bad boys Hungary and Poland, as well as with Russia. His opponents want to steer the country back towards Brussels.

Which way will the ship of the Czech state sail, and will pirates be on the bridge or not?

Fun fact: The olde time pirate greeting "ahoy!" is actually how you say "Hi" in Czech. Try it out, matey.

UPDATE: this version of the article updates to include intimation about president Zeman’s health.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said the elections were to be held on Sunday, rather than Friday-Saturday. We regret the error.


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