Czech Republic: Challenges of Polarization and Power Concentration
Prepared by the researcher : Muhammad Fawzi Ali – Assistant Professor – Ain Shams University – Cairo, Egyp
Democratic Arab Center
In the past 30 years, the Czech Republic has experienced democratization, economic transformation and a redefinition of the nation state. Today it has consolidated democratic and free-market institutions, which, however, are being challenged by the concentration of economic, political and media power in the incumbent prime minister. The technocratic populism he represents stands in contrast to the liberal idea of a democratic control of powers and has contributed to political polarization.
Over the past 30 years, the Czech Republic has experienced a triple transformation process – democratization, economic transformation and redefinition of the nation state. In 1989, the economically stagnant and politically paralyzed communist regime was surprised by the end of the Cold War. The police crackdown on the November 17, 1989 peaceful student demonstration sparked nationwide protests, and on November 28, 1989, the Communist Party gave up its monopoly on power. On the opposition side, students, artists and dissidents formed the Revolutionary Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum, OF), which participated in the negotiations on the transitional power and the cooptation of OF members into the Czechoslovak National and Federal Assembly. On December 29, 1989, Parliament elected the well-known dissident Václav Havel as President of Czechoslovakia, and Alexander Dubček, the symbol of the Prague Spring (1968), became President of the Federal Assembly. In June 1990, OF won the first democratic elections overwhelmingly.
Two important figures shaped the first decade of the country’s transformation and consolidation (since 1993 the Czech Republic). The first was the former dissident and playwright, a well-known representative of the Charta 77 opposition movement – Václav Havel (President of the Czechoslovak Federal Republic 1990-1992 and the Czech Republic 1993-2003). The second was Václav Klaus – an economist who became one of the leading figures of the Civic Forum and later the leader of the Civic Democratic Party, holding the posts of Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament and President of the Republic (2003-2013). These two personalities often quarreled in public due to ideological differences. Their controversies represented strong and opposing currents in Czech politics (See Rakušanová 2007; Blaive and Maslowski 2010). These antagonisms largely shaped the nature of Czech politics, resulting in a highly polarized system that in many ways posed a significant obstacle to more effective governance (e.g., by making coalition building more difficult and the opposition divided).
The current development is again dominated by two important personalities – Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš. Miloš Zeman, the current President (since 2013), is the former leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party. Between 1996 and 1998 he was also Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the Czech Parliament, Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002 and an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in the 2003 general election. Feeling betrayed, Zeman became the harshest critic of the new leadership of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), left the party, founded his own party and won the first direct presidential election in 2013. In March 2013, Zeman became president. After the October 2013 parliamentary elections, Zeman tried unsuccessfully to sideline Social Democratic party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and delegate the formation of a government to his old ally Michal Hašek. After the failed intra-party coup, Zeman became Prime Minister Sobotka’s harshest critic and a close ally of big businessman and political newcomer Andrej Babiš.
Babiš founded the party called Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (‘Akce nespokojených občanů‘ ANO, meaning ‘yes’ in Czech) in 2011 and has successfully posed as a ‘defender of ordinary people’ despite being one of the richest people in the country. The rise of Babiš was made possible by the lack of regulation and weakness of the rule of law in the initial transition period, the subsequent close ties between politics and business, and the withdrawal of Western media corporations from the Czech Republic. Babiš took advantage of this media market opening and legal loopholes in campaign and party financing laws to become a major media owner. The media then played a crucial role in his political career – first, in promoting a new party owned by a relatively unknown businessman to become the second-strongest political force in the 2013 elections, second, in weakening Prime Minister Sobotka and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), and third , since 2018 to propagate his form of technocratic populism (Jirák and Köpplová 2020; Buštíková and Guasti 2019; Hanley 2018). In 2017, Babiš won the parliamentary elections, and after a failed attempt, the cabinet and he were confirmed by parliament as prime minister on July 12, 2018. The government coalition he leads with the Social Democrats is dependent on the informal support of the communist MPs.
Contrasting with the vision of technocratic populism is the long tradition of an active, engaged civil society that champions democracy, demands responsiveness, and holds politicians accountable (Bernhard et al. 2019; see also Bernhard et al. 2015). The successful citizens’ initiative “Million Moments for Democracy” was created on the anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution” on November 17, 2017. The initiative was launched on Facebook and called on the new Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to keep his campaign promise to develop democracy. When nothing happened, a petition followed calling on Babiš to resign. In April 2018, an active protest campaign began, which spread far beyond Prague to over 300 towns and villages. The campaign culminated in a demonstration with 300,000 participants in June 2019 and again in November 2019 in Prague’s Letná Park. The campaign brought together citizens from across the political spectrum to defend their shared values of democracy, accountability, the rule of law and active citizenship. Protests have continued throughout the pandemic – both in public spaces and online. In 2020, protesters also turned their attention to the elections, calling on opposition parties to unite against the prime minister. These calls were partially successful; After the 2020 regional elections, two opposition blocs emerged – one liberal and one conservative. At the same time, one of the founders of the Citizens’ Movement resigned to set up his political party after rejecting offers from several opposition liberal parties to run in 2021.
In the spring of 2020, rapid and drastic measures to prevent COVID-19 infections were taken in the Czech Republic. However, the government of Babiš also tried to use the far-reaching emergency powers to strengthen executive power (see Bermeo 2016), weaken parliamentary oversight and ban protests (Guasti 2020a). These attempts were clothed in the language of technocratic competence and public health (Buštíková and Baboš 2020).
In the summer of 2020, the government relaxed the strict restrictions, but did not prepare for the second wave. The second wave arrived in October 2020 and was significantly stronger in terms of the number of infections and deaths. The Czech Republic, which was successful during the first wave, was now among the worst-hit countries in the world. In both waves, emergency aid was chaotic, marked by political competition within the governing coalition, frequent U-turns, and a lack of planning. In November 2020, the Czech Republic had its third health minister since the outbreak of the pandemic (Buštíková and Baboš 2020).
Parliamentary oversight and investigative journalism have been critical in identifying issues in the government’s response to COVID-19. The opposition, members of the second chamber of parliament (Senate) and courts blocked attempts by the government to re-impose a state of emergency and restrict movement. In the summer, however, the communists split from the opposition. In doing so, they weakened the opposition’s attempt to force the government to be more transparent in dealing with the pandemic, to increase testing capacities and to prepare preventive measures for the second wave of infections.
From an institutional point of view, the Czech Republic belongs to a group of countries with a relatively successful political transformation (Fuchs and Klingemann 2002; Merkel 2008). The essential features of democratic political life are firmly established, the institutional structure is stable and there is a clear separation of powers. There are no significant forces that would preclude the exercise of state power. Control mechanisms (checks and balances) and constitutional order are guaranteed (Mansfeldová and Guasti 2010; Pridham 2009). Nonetheless, the Czech Republic is experiencing increasing levels of political volatility, fragmentation and polarization. This puts additional strain on the relationship between state and society (Guasti and Mansfeldová 2018; Brusis 2016; Lorenz 2020).
2.1. The Resurgence of Identity Politics
The Czech Republic is an ethnically and nationally homogeneous country (in December 2018 the proportion of foreigners was 5.4% of the population), where attitudes towards minorities, especially Roma, have steadily improved over time (mainly due to the external pressure from the European Union and the Council of Europe).
The so-called refugee crisis (2015-2017) triggered identity-political resentments and campaigns. Driven by populist rhetoric and unbalanced media coverage, negative attitudes towards the reception and integration of refugees dominate in the Czech public. Despite very few asylum applications and even fewer accepted asylum seekers, the issue continues to be portrayed as a threat to the country’s identity by populist politicians, including the Czech President.
Fear of Muslim immigration was linked to Eurosceptic attitudes by – populist politicians portraying the EU refugee contingent as a “Brussels dictate”. The data on labor migration make it clear that the loud anti-refugee rhetoric masks a tacit practice of taking in labor migrants (see Bohle and Greskovits 2019). Given that the Czech Republic has previously integrated thousands of migrants from Bosnia, Ukraine and Moldova, the anti-refugee policy appears primarily as a strategy to create and exploit fear and resentment in Czech society (Guasti 2017).
In the 2017 general election, flirtation with anti-refugee rhetoric resulted in a slight strengthening of the far right (from 6.9% to 10.6%), but had no impact on support for ANO. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, lost 70% of their votes (from 20.5% to 7.3%). The rise of identity politics also targeted xenophobia traditionally directed against Roma (Buštíková 2019).
The Catholic Church, the most active religious organization that previously had a limited political agenda, became significantly more politically active. However, the position of the Catholic Church in the secularized Czech society remains controversial. Church restitutions in particular remain controversial, and the church continues to be rocked by allegations of covering up sex crimes.
2.2. Political Participation
Free and fair elections are regularly organized and guaranteed by the constitution. The electoral law guarantees the parties access to state radio and television. Municipalities also provide billboard space and newspapers publish political ads. However, larger parties are more visible in public. The coverage of the private media is less balanced than that of the public media. In addition, the current Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, owns one of the major media groups (Buštíková and Guasti 2019).
Up until 2006, both the degree of fragmentation and the effective number of parties steadily decreased (Brokl and Mansfeldová 1999). The two largest political parties, the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), secured more than two thirds of the votes in 2006. Currently, however, the Czech party system is fragmented, fluid and unstable (Mareš 2011; Hanley 2012; Buštíková and Guasti 2017). After the 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2017 general elections, the political situation was characterized by ongoing conflicts between a weak centre-right (and centre-left after the 2013 and 2017 elections) coalition government and a strengthened but divided opposition.
This is reflected in weak and unstable government coalitions (Guasti and Mansfeldová 2018). The coalition government of ANO and ČSSD in office in 2020 was dependent on the support of the Communist Party. In the absence of a formal agreement with the Communists, the prime minister had to negotiate support for certain laws – most notably the state budget. This allowed the Communist Party to force significant political concessions and wield disproportionate power over the government agenda.
New, often protesting, parties keep emerging and enter parliament shortly after they are founded. During a legislative period, new political groups and splinter parties often form within parliament – such as the new right-wing party Tricolora in 2019. The chances of survival for these new parties are limited (Linek and Lyon 2013). ANO was the only new party whose support steadily grew until its landslide victory in October 2017 general elections. It won almost 30% of the seats, but its governing coalition appeared as fragile as previous coalitions (see Buštíková and Guasti 2017).
The weaknesses in political representation are mitigated to a large extent by the strength of Czech civil society (Mansfeldová et al. 2004). It is growing and becoming increasingly active transnationally (Rakusanova 2007; Cisar and Vrablikova 2013). Civil society has succeeded in creating a space between private interests and the state.
Freedom of association and assembly is fully guaranteed in the Czech Republic. Since the economic crisis, the number of protests has increased significantly (see Mansfeldová 2015; Guasti 2016, 2017). Protests are taking place across the country for a wide variety of, and often conflicting, reasons. This includes events for Roma and Gay Pride, but also anti-Islam, anti-NATO and anti-EU demonstrations or the life-affirming “March for Life”. During the pandemic, protests continued, including pro-democracy groups but also some anti-mask protesters that turned violent. The pro-democracy protests, and in particular the “Million Moments for Democracy” protest movement, are significantly larger and more frequent (Guasti 2020a).
The Czech Republic is characterized by a high level of media freedom, as the public media enjoy independence, but also because the foreign owners, who dominated the private media sector, did not have any visible influence on the content and reporting until 2010 (see Tworzecki and Semetko 2012 ). However, the private media market has changed significantly in recent years. The most critical tendencies are the concentration of media ownership, the exit of several international owners, the expansion of the scope of media holdings (print, online, radio and television) and Andrej Babiš’s capture of a large part of the Czech media market. Using this media power to support his political position and denigrate any alternatives has further stimulated the development of online media, aided by subscriptions and crowdsourcing. The Babiš government tried to influence the public media more often (Guasti 2020b).
2.3. Rule of Law
In the Czech Republic there is a clear separation of powers with checks and balances. Unlike in the past, there is less tension between the President and the Prime Minister, who are close allies. In disagreements, the President often prevailed. In 2019, his interference in cabinet appointments exceeded the limits of his constitutional rights. In a months-long conflict, the President managed to prevent the appointment of a new minister. The prime minister was unwilling to press for the case to be resolved by the Constitutional Court. Instead, he chose to accommodate the president by putting pressure on his junior partner in government. The Social Democratic Party accommodated the President rather than call for new elections, as its low approval ratings could lead to its total annihilation.
The Czech courts work independently of the executive. The most active control over the actions of the executive branch is the Constitutional Court, whose rulings have sparked much controversy across the political spectrum. The most controversial judgments were the October 2019 cancellation of taxation on church restitutions (a law passed by the government to accommodate the Communist Party’s anti-restitution calls) (see Pospisil 2018).
The judges of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court are appointed by the Senate, the second chamber of the Czech Parliament, on the proposal of the President. The involvement of both the President and Senate increases the likelihood of a balance between judges’ political views and other characteristics. President Zeman’s proposals remain undisputed. In 2019, reports of attempts by the Presidential Office to influence various court cases were unveiled. The Office of the President denied these efforts and instead spoke of “regular consultations” (Guasti 2020b).
Corruption and clientelism are still widespread. Various governments have emphasized their commitment to fighting corruption but have done little to adequately address the problem. In 2017, the Party Financing Law and the Law on Conflicts of Interest were reformed to make party finances more transparent and to exclude private companies owned by members of the government from public tenders (the amendment was dubbed “Lex Babiš” by the opposition). Despite these apparent advances, the merging of economic, political and media power in the hands of Prime Minister Babiš means an unprecedented entanglement of private and public interests. The biggest public controversy concerns the use of EU funds intended for the promotion of companies owned by Babiš.
The public protests aimed at this merging of politics, business and media power, but throughout this period the prime minister and his party continued to enjoy the support of about 30% of the population. However, there is a significant generational gap – ANO voters tend to be older and mostly retired. Younger voters reject corruption and forms of collusion between political and business interests. The 2018 municipal elections in Prague confirmed that support for ANO is clearly waning in Prague, where anti-corruption and transparency bound the coalition of three new liberal political groups. Young voters see both Babiš and other mainstream parties as part of a corrupt system and are demanding change.
2.4. Political Culture
Polls show a stable and high level of general support for democracy and satisfaction with the democratic system (Guasti and Mansfeldová 2017; Klingemann et al. 2006), which Czechs associate with freedom, participation and socio-economic security. However, people are dissatisfied with the current political situation and distrust the political elite (ibid.). The successes of the Věci veřejné (Public Affairs) party in 2010, ANO in 2013 and 2017, and the Pirate Party in 2017 can be attributed to this disillusionment with the current political elite and the belief that the root of the incompetence of the political elite and not in the failure of the democratic system (see Linek 2013; Buštíková and Guasti 2017).
The relationship between state and society remains difficult. It remains unclear whether Western liberal values will be anchored or whether post-communist society still adheres to the post-communist concept of democracy, in which politics is at the service of business interests and the structures associated with them (Guasti and Mansfeldová 2018; Lorenz 2020).
- Economic Transformation
The economic transition can be described as a four-phase process. The first phase (1990-1993) was characterized by a significant decline in key economic indicators such as GDP. The disagreements over the pace of reforms were one of the factors contributing to Slovakia’s secession (Basta and Buštíková 2016). In the second phase (1994-1996), the Czech Republic experienced significant economic growth after numerous reforms, primarily privatization. The third phase was marked by a recession (1997–1999). Economic growth resumed in 2000 with the start of the fourth phase, which ended in 2004 with accession to the EU and its internal market.
The world economic crisis and global economic downturn at the end of 2008 had a delayed but significant impact on the Czech economy. They first hit the country in 2009. Although the impact was minor compared to other CEE countries, the government enacted wide-ranging reforms to combat the crisis. The reforms triggered massive protests and were largely reversed by the subsequent Sobotka government (2013-2017). Full recovery only happened between 2014 and 2016, fueled by administrative reforms, public investment, growing domestic demand and EU funding.
As of 2019, the Czech Republic reported the lowest unemployment in the EU, economic growth and falling public debt. Positive economic developments helped increase the minimum wage and pensions (the most significant increase in the last twenty years in January 2019).
State-owned enterprises have been privatized according to free market principles, but some large state-owned enterprises remain. The state will not privatize state-owned companies or companies with state participation or of strategic importance. There is still no explicit political agreement on what should remain state-owned and what should be offered for privatization. The current government does not see the privatization of state assets as a top priority.
The Czech Republic has a high level of human development, a low proportion of people in need and still low levels of inequality compared to most post-communist countries. The proportion of Czech citizens living below the income poverty line (below 60% of the median income) was 9.1% in 2017; the situation has improved slightly compared to the previous period (10% in 2016). While the unemployment rate is low, some workers are at risk of in-work poverty, particularly through precarious employment.
Income disparities exist in particular between the capital city of Prague and the structurally disadvantaged regions in northern and western Bohemia. The gender pay gap is one of the highest in the EU, although the Czech Republic has historically been among the front runners when it comes to gender equality. Differences in pay between men and women persist. Apart from lower salaries, women also receive lower old-age pensions. As a result, women are more at risk of poverty than men.
Inflationary pressures in the domestic economy have been strong due to rapid wage growth and sustained economic growth. In 2017 and 2018, the Czech National Bank raised interest rates several times in response to economic developments, especially inflation. The Czech koruna is considered one of the most stable currencies in Central Europe. The Czech currency is continuously stable and experienced only slight shifts in the period under review. The Czech Republic meets all the criteria allowing it to introduce the common European currency. Nevertheless, the government believes that when deciding to join the euro zone, the harmonization of the Czech economy with the euro area and its ability to adapt to potential asymmetric shocks without its monetary policy should be taken into account. No target date for the introduction of the euro has been set.
Environmental policy in the Czech Republic is largely shaped by the country’s obligations to implement EU legislation. The Czech Republic remains a passive recipient of EU and international agendas. However, the 2017 EU evaluation found mixed performance on the effectiveness of environmental policy implementation.
Public spending on education as a percentage of GDP has increased since the economic crisis and is slightly above the EU average. The new Babiš government continued the policies of the Sobotka government and significantly increased teachers’ salaries. However, the wage increase is below the demands of the school unions, which led to a day-long teachers’ strike in November 2019. The absorption of EU funds in education has improved. The high overall expenditure on research and development is heavily dependent on support from EU funds. R&D weaknesses include a lack of government strategy, an inability to attract and retain young, qualified researchers, and a low number of women. As a result of these problems, the ability to take advantage of the increased funding opportunities is limited.
- European Integration and Outlook
European integration and the “return to Europe” played an essential stabilizing role during the period of transformation and consolidation. Despite some very vocal Eurosceptic voices (notably former President Václav Klaus), there has been little opposition to European integration. But it also meant that there was no real public debate about what EU membership will mean for the country. The Czech Republic was a passive and somewhat ambivalent EU member state. The centre-right governments in particular often oriented themselves towards the position of Britain and less towards regional allies (see Vachudova 2005; Heydemann and Vodička 2017).
After joining the EU (2004), the government geared its work to the EU legal framework and was strongly influenced by it. The EU’s insistence on concrete targets and steps to implement reforms, together with systematic and rigorous monitoring and a shift towards a pro-European political climate, contributed to better implementation of medium- and long-term development strategies. The refugee crisis, on the other hand, led to a shift from passive ambivalence to openly challenging EU policies. The Czech public, driven by part of the Czech elite and above all by the increasing anti-Islamic rhetoric, firmly rejects any form of refugee distribution quotas.
The Czech Republic is fully integrated into international structures. The government sees Czech membership in NATO as a cornerstone of the country’s external security. The Czech military has participated in foreign military operations under the NATO Command Structures in Afghanistan (from 2008 to 2021) and the UN Monitoring Mission in Syria (UNSMIS, from May 2012 to the present). The main internal security issues remain the fight against political extremism and increasingly against cyber-terrorism (in January 2017, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs was attacked by hackers. In spring and autumn 2020, several hospitals were hit by hacker pandemic attacks).
As in the whole post-communist EU area, public trust in politicians is very low and polarization remains high. Unlike in the past, when left-right polarization focused on redistribution, the dominant societal divide has shifted between young urban dwellers with post-materialist values and older, mostly retired and low-income, sometimes poverty-prone rural dwellers. Retirees and low-income voters outside of the big cities, many of whom are struggling to maintain basic living standards and face personal bankruptcy, were receptive to ANO’s anti-corruption appeal, targeting mainstream parties and promising to run “the state as a company” (Buštíková and Guasti 2019).
Overall support for left and right has remained stable over time; Shifts took place within the two blocks. On the left, the ANO won the majority of the social democratic and part of the communist electoral base. On the fragmented right, there were significant shifts between bourgeois Democrats and smaller, liberal and conservative parties. The results of the 2018 local elections in Prague show these shifts even more clearly: neither the communists nor the social democrats won council seats, and ANO only achieved fifth place. In the educated and wealthier Prague, the appeal of technocratic populism is limited (see Buštíková and Guasti 2019; Bernhard et al. 2019). The city government was formed by the Pirate Party and two new political subjects, rooted in civil society and opposed to the established parties. The same trend continued in the 2020 regional elections – while ANO won in 10 of the 13 regions, it was only able to form three regional governments. Although the polarization remains, the opposition to Babiš forced the opposition parties to cooperate.
The Czech Republic faces several important political challenges. The Czech economy depends on the economy in the euro area, which receives a large part of Czech exports. It remains dependent on foreign investment from multinationals and the auto industry. The main reasons for this are a skilled workforce, the ongoing cheap labor policy and an excellent geographic location that facilitates cross-border transactions and transfers between the various Czech and German branches. In order to remain competitive, the Czech Republic needs to strengthen its vocational education by introducing dual programs consisting of in-company training and practical skills training.
In addition, to make economic growth sustainable, the Czech government needs to pay more attention to R&D output and education. The government needs to focus on family policy issues, in particular by increasing support for families with children and enabling women to return to work after parental leave. No doubt other factors, such as immigration, could offset some of the negative effects of demographic change. However, if the equalization process is to work, the Czech Republic needs to become more proactive in attracting skilled migrants and integrating them into Czech society, rather than encouraging nativist emotions.
The government must also recognize that the current economic growth fueled by public spending and EU funding is unsustainable, especially after the current EU funding programs have expired. Therefore, the Czech government needs to identify resources and processes to maintain the programs and infrastructure initiated with EU assistance. Irrespective of political constraints, demographic aging makes it necessary to strengthen the capacity of the Czech welfare system and adapt it to the changing needs of different sections of the population. A key goal is to update social protection systems, carefully considering the implications of such reforms on possible disproportionate impacts on vulnerable groups and gender equality.
Finally, COVID-19 posed a major challenge for Czech politics. The pandemic has exposed existing inequalities, weaknesses within the public health system and dangers related to dependence on the global supply chain. Perhaps the pandemic has been seen as an opportunity to address long-term issues like inequality, education and the environment.
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 Babiš’ company dominates daily print media with an estimated 2.4 million readers and online media with an estimated 3.4 million daily users.