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Ever since the Pirate movement burst on to Europe’s political scene as a rebellious force 15 years ago, its anti-establishment parties have remained on the fringes of mainstream politics.
But when Czech voters head to the polls for a parliamentary election in early October, there is a chance that the party will win enough votes to become the EU’s first Pirates to enter national government.
Led by Ivan Bartos, a dreadlocked 41-year-old, the Pirates and their coalition partners the Mayors and Independents (Stan) are, along with an alliance of rightwing parties, one of two blocs who could potentially team up to oust the ANO party of billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis.
Like many Pirates, Bartos, a former IT professional, went into politics because he was frustrated with the status quo, and felt that the Czech Republic’s existing parties were hindering the central European nation’s efforts to close the gap on its richer neighbours in western Europe.
“I could not stand that people who are corrupted and are not professional were actually deciding about our lives,” he said in an interview at the party’s office in Prague.
“The Czech Republic has good people, good brains, good workers, but they never catch up with the western European dream.”
Founded in 2009, the Czech Pirates are one of a number of similarly named parties spawned by the battle over internet copyright rules in the mid-2000s. However, unlike some of its peers, the party soon moved beyond single-issue politics and after unsuccessful attempts in 2010 and 2013, entered the Czech parliament in 2017 as the third-biggest party, with 11 per cent of the vote.
Earlier this year, the Pirates’ alliance with Stan overtook Babis’s ANO, with polls giving them close to 30 per cent, which briefly made their alliance the most popular political grouping.
The surge was due in part to widespread anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic, which took a particularly heavy toll in the early months of the year. By March, in per capita terms, the Czech Republic had the highest cumulative death toll in the world.
“The Covid crisis uncovered how chaotically the country is run,” said Bartos. “It cost us 30,000 extra deaths.”
However, support for ANO has recovered as the impact of the pandemic has eased, and in recent weeks, the Pirates and Stan have slipped to third, behind Babis’s party and the centre-right coalition Together.
Babis has also made the Pirates his number one target, portraying them as progressive ideologues who pose a threat to the country’s more conservative voters. In June, he claimed that the Pirates wanted to make Czechs with big homes share them with migrants. This month, he claimed they were promoting “ideologically correct ice cream”.
“Babis defined his campaign as shooting at the Pirates, and they didn’t know how to respond,” said Milan Nic, senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “They haven’t been able to reshape the discourse and the campaign to make it about issues from their programme. They’ve been on the defensive.”
Bartos remains undeterred. He says his party has been the subject of more disinformation than any other. And he says the real risk to the Czech Republic is that Babis — who is anathema to some mainstream parties because of allegations of fraud and conflicts of interest relating to his business empire, which he denies — teams up with the far-right and Communists after the election to stay in power.
This, Bartos warned, would risk dragging the Czech Republic away from the EU mainstream and leave it among the bloc’s stragglers. “I don’t want us to be a museum of an eastern European post-communist country. I want to belong to the western Europe that evolves and grows, that co-operates,” he said. “You can’t deal with the challenges of the future on your own.”
As in much of central Europe, one of those challenges, he argues, will be shifting the Czech economy away from a model in which it provides cheap labour to western European multinationals, to one in which its companies are higher up the value chain. “We want to change the Czech Republic from a country that assembles things to being the brain,” he said.
But he also said the Czech Republic, which still relies on coal for almost a third of its energy, has to be greener. The country needs to take advantage of funds that the EU is offering member states — as part of its Green Deal climate package — to help the bloc achieve carbon neutrality over the next three decades, he said.
“The Green Deal money is intended to create the jobs that will be there in 2050. There is not much space to develop unless you become ecologically responsible,” he said. “And if this is the trend, it’s not ideological to follow it — it’s smart.”