While anti-establishment populism, corruption, and xenophobia begin to dominate the world stage, a young party in a small country provides a strategy for strengthening liberal democracy.
Mikuláš Ferjenčík is a 31-year-old parliamentarian with long black hair and a beard. He represents the Czech Republic’s Pirate Party. When we met on Malostranské Náměsti, the square facing the Chamber of Deputies, his casual-intellectual fashion style brought me back to Reed College campus. Prague Castle stood above us, at the top of the hill a block away. Because a local coffee shop was full, we laughed and resigned ourselves to a Starbucks.
Photo credit: Pirati Strana; this file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
A president unafraid to make openly racist claims, a prime minister under indictment for fraud, general cynicism and frustration with establishment politics, rising xenophobia—this situation sounds familiar, though it describes the Czech Republic, not the United States. Poland and Hungary’s decline into authoritarianism dominate American headlines and are applied and compared to U.S. politics. These more dramatic situations overshadow that of the Czech Republic, despite the fact that a surprising new phenomenon has occurred in response to corruption and growing anti-establishment mood: The Pirate Party.
Pirate Parties are an international political movement that began in Sweden with the intention of fighting stringent copyright laws.[i] Though beginning as a one-issue party, Czech Pirates have evolved into a movement hoping to fundamentally change society’s attitude toward politics as well as democracy itself. The Pirate Party of the Czech Republic has become the most successful Pirate Party in the world,[ii] having won over ten percent of parliament as well as become part of the governing coalitions of the two largest cities in the country.
Ferjenčik and I switched between discussing local and national politics, as he used specific examples of recent issues and events as well as constant fractions, percentages, and statistics in order to illustrate the general political situation. He was careful to be accurate. “The cost of living in Prague has doubled in the past ten years, and—well it’s— it’s almost doubled in the past 10 years” he said, “and it’s rising 15% each year now.” He would often begin his answers to my questions with “there are two main things” or “there are three reasons” and would number and list his points completely improvised.
According to Ferjenčik, “left” or “right” ideological program does not define the Pirates. Czech Pirates run as an alternative to both the traditional parties of the past 30 years of Czech democracy, as well as the populist personality-based parties that are beginning to dominate international politics.[iii] The post-Velvet Revolution establishment parties are the center-left Social Democrats (CSSD) and the center-right Civic Democrats (ODS). Surprisingly, the Communist party has not completely died out, though it is now, Ferjenčík claims, ultra-conservative.
In a local example, I ask Ferjenčík why voters would choose Pirates to address Prague’s housing crisis over a traditional party emphasizing the same issue. The difference, he claims, is that traditional parties would use ideologue to approach the problem. A right-wing party would remove a tax on buying property to lower prices, for example, though economic analysis may show this would only increase demand by investors and worsen the problem. The Pirates would use economic analysis and studies to direct their approach, and each particular problem would need to be addressed differently. In this way, I begin to see the Pirate Party as a call for meritocratic technocracy
The Pirates similarly cannot be categorized with the new populist parties that revolve around one person, such as ANO (“yes” in Czech), which currently governs the Czech Republic, or the far-right neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD). These parties tend to be introduced with the names of their leaders: “Andrej Babiš’ ANO party” or “The SDP, lead by Tomio Okamura” as if that explains their positions.
The governing ANO party is notorious for the corruption of its leader, Andrej Babiš, the second richest man in the country, who is currently under indictment both by the Czech government and the European Union for fraud.[i] Babiš, like US president Trump, maintains support because his outsider status and business success give him the appearance of credibility against a self-serving elite, even if his own graft exceeds theirs.
It helps that Babiš’ company owns the two largest newspapers in the Czech Republic. The international news agency Politico called Babiš an oligarch, and argued he endangers democracy.[ii] Zneděk Hrib, the Pirate’s mayoral candidate for Prague has also called Babiš an oligarch.[iii] However, in our conversation, Ferjenčík surprised me because he did not place much emphasis on media consolidation as an issue. Nor was he as alarmed by ANO as many political scientists and observers are.
“The issue with ANO is what they might do, not what they are doing, or what they already did,” Ferjenčík claims. He emphasizes that the success of this party comes from the fact that the previous “establishment” parties discredited themselves the past 20 years with their own constant corruption scandals.
“When the Social Democrats campaign, it helps Babiš. If they argue to raise wages, people will agree and turn to Babiš. They think he’s more capable because he’s a business man.” Ferjenčík tells me that because ANO is a person-based party means that he can fire whomever he needs and decisively implement policy. And yet, according to Ferjenčík, the ANO party has done very little, and only works to maintain the status quo and their own power.
Ferjenčík claims the key to defeating ANO lies in providing a better alternative to voters, and accountability and transparency will do that. If non-ideological problem solving is one pillar of the party, increased democracy through transparency and accountability is the other.
The Pirates are the only party to be completely transparent in how it’s finances and accounts are managed. Unlike every other party (and any US Party) all rank-and-file members of the Pirate Party elect the leaders of the Party online. In Brno and Prague, the Pirate Party governments are attempting to create a participatory budget system—meaning citizens are given an active role in developing the municipal budget.
Similarly, the Pirates believe that the European Union ought to be reformed to tilt power away from bureaucratic institutions like the European Council and European Commission and toward the elected European Parliament. Through these examples we see that Pirates wish to illustrate that transparency and accountability will make them more responsive to public needs, and therefore more capable than establishment elites and than Babiš’ centralized ANO.
The continued success of ANO, the SPD, and president Zeman can be attributed to their open xenophobia and racism. Despite evidence to the contrary, a large part of the population is moved by talk of a “flood of migrants.” Babiš’ media companies can cement the false narrative. Can focusing on accountability, transparency, and problem solving successfully counteract these fear mongering narratives?
The Pirate Party’s members are young compared to any other party, a point Ferjenčík was proud of. A key feature of the party, he stressed, was its engagement of a young generation into politics. The average parliamentarian in the party was 10 years younger than the average of the second-youngest party.
However, the youth of the Party’s members were an issue in the negotiations to set up Prague’s municipal government. The negotiations took an unusual three weeks, largely because of the inexperience of the next mayor.[i] It is not an uncommon critique to hear that the Pirates are too inexperienced, and have not made specific enough plans during their sudden rise to prominence. Their rebellious image and name similarly compounds fears that they will not seriously govern.
The Pirate Party allows for a diversity of opinions among its members, to the point that a couple party leaders align with far-left Marxist movements, while others are elected from center-right regions of the country. This makes it difficult to pin down exact positions of the party, and causes some to question whether the party can govern effectively.
While American political scientists debate whether populism and government dysfunction is a result of too much or too little democracy, the Czech Pirates have an unambiguous answer. The disaffection that leads voters to turn to populism comes from the fact that the government and parties have failed to be democratic enough. Increasing direct public participation and democracy is an increase in transparency and accountability.
The Pirate Party demonstrates what is lacking in the U.S. debate. In the United States, there is no movement calling for non-ideological evidence-based policy, nor has there been a successful call for more direct democratic participation and accountability. The Pirate Party has yet to govern nationally, and has just begun to succeed locally. We will have to wait and see if it achieves what it promises, and if a new type of democracy is possible.
[i] Philip Heijmans, “In Czech Elections, Pirate Party Eyes Prague Mayor’s Seat,” U.S. News, September 24, 2018, https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2018-09-24/in-czech-elections-pirate-party-eyes-prague-mayors-seat.
[ “Czech Pirates Are World’s Strongest Party of Its Kind,” News, Brno Daily, November 4, 2017, https://brnodaily.cz/2017/11/04/breaking-news/czech-pirates-are-worlds-strongest-party-of-its-kind-press/.
[ii] Ian Willoughby, “With Poll Placing Them Second on 15%, What Are Pirates Doing Right?,” Radio Prague, March 9, 2018, https://www.radio.cz/en/section/curraffrs/with-poll-placing-them-second-on-15-pct-what-are-pirates-doing-right.
[iii] Rick Lyman, “In Czech Election, a New Threat to European Unity,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/europe/czech-republic-andrej-babis.html.
[iv] Adam Drda, “Andrej Babiš – Czech Oligarch,” POLITICO, September 11, 2014, https://www.politico.eu/article/andrej-babis-czech-oligarch/.
[v] Heijmans, “In Czech Elections, Pirate Party Eyes Prague Mayor’s Seat.”
[vi] Raymond Johnston, “Prague to Have Pirate Mayor,” Prague TV, October 26, 2018, https://prague.tv/en/s72/Directory/c214-Business/n16080-Prague-to-have-Pirate-mayor.