In Czech Elections, Pirate Party Eyes Prague Mayor’s Seat

PRAGUE — If voter Mikolas Moravec has his way the next mayor of the Czech capital city of Prague will be a pirate.

Like a lot of young Czechs, Moravec, a 30-year-old aspiring soccer scout, has grown dissatisfied with the scandal-laden political establishment that has been around since the end of communism nearly 30 years ago. When Czechs head to the polls in early October for nationwide municipal elections, he says he will vote for change.

“I am tired of how these election campaigns are. They are usually just blaming one another for what the other side did wrong; who is bad, who is the enemy, who lied, who broke what promises. They are like little kids in school.”

Moravec is not alone. Public distrust of politicians is widespread in the country, fueled by persistent charges of corruption and a political gridlock that has seen nine cabinets in the national government come and go in the past 16 years. The distrust has paved the way for ideologically diverse upstart parties, including the liberal, youth-powered ?eská pirátská strana, the Czech Pirate Party.

The Pirate Party “really just wants to cooperate with people as a team, like it should be,” Moravec says.

A student-driven grassroots movement founded in 2009 by dreadlocked psychedelic-trance disc jockey Ivan Bartos, the Czech Pirates has campaigned on issues such as political transparency, civil rights and direct democracy to become the second most popular party in the country. Now, they are on the verge of winning their biggest prize yet — the mayor’s seat in Prague, according to recent polls.

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The Pirate Party began in 2006 in Sweden as a single-issue movement dedicated to elevating the debate on information technology regulation based on internet freedom. Capitalizing on its name, which the Swedish founders said they adopted to mark themselves as progressive, the party initially received widespread international media attention and spawned incarnations in more than 40 countries. Most, however, failed to find lasting political success.

In the Czech Republic, the party has emerged as a serious alternative to the traditional or right-wing parties that rode to power on a wave of nationalism now commonplace in European politics. Last year, the Pirates entered Parliament for the first time, winning 22 seats in national legislative elections, good enough for third place in the 200-seat lower house Chamber of Deputies. Only in Iceland does the Pirate Party occupy a higher percentage of seats in a national legislature.

Party officials in the Czech Republic say their success is tied to the country’s recent history: communist oppression during most of the second half of the 20th century, and growing public cynicism about politicians in the post-communist years.

“Politics do not have much credit here in the Czech Republic and this is maybe partly due to the communist era as well as what happened here in the 1990s and today with a high level of corruption, and this is something we would like to change,” Zdenek Hrib, the party’s mayoral candidate for Prague, says, sitting in his party’s offices in the baroque Chamber of Deputies, just a stone’s throw from Prague Castle.

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Wearing a black flag of the pirate on his lapel, Hrib, 37, denies his party’s insignia suggests they are merely rebels. Instead, he says his party is full of pragmatists offering modern solutions to problems that remain unsolved in the post-communist era. Among their initiatives are public cost-cutting measures such as switching to open-source software and synchronizing referendums with elections to bolster credibility.

“In the beginning we were considered more a curiosity and the perception is that we were doing this for fun, but we meant it for real,” Hrib says. “Our politics are attractive to young people and that is because we are addressing the issues in a modern way.” As proof, Hrib says his party wants to restrict online hospitality services such as Airbnb, which has contributed to property prices that have soared more than 30 percent during the past two years.

Adds Bartos, today the chairman of the Pirate Party: “We are smart and not just a bunch of people from the playground. We have been working at it for [nine] years. We see what is happening, we know the programs and know what needs to be done.”

Bartos says the Pirate Party has a more liberal, democratic tradition than any other party in the Czech Republic. The party’s agenda to create government transparency contrasts to the ruling government led by billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who stands accused of abusing an EU subsidy scheme, and his Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party.

Observers here say the two-day elections on Oct. 5 and 6 are the first test for Babis, who took power after winning the national elections last November with just 29.6 percent of the vote.

“People are looking for something new in politics and at this point [the Pirates] represent this,” says political analyst Ji?í Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to late Czech President Václav Havel, a dissident during the communist era. “They are not only in opposition to the traditional parties but also Babis, so they stand somewhere in between.”

Pehe says the stakes are high in the Prague mayor election. The elected position is a prominent political position in the country is currently held by ANO. “If [ANO] loses Prague, it would be a big blow for Babis. It could send a message that the movement is not doing so well … so he will be very nervous.”

A poll released earlier this month for state-owned broadcaster Czech Television shows the Pirates would win in Prague with 21.5 percent of the vote, while ANO would fall to second place with 14 percent.

While the Pirates have run a largely positive campaign, Hrib has some choice words for Babis, calling him an “oligarch” who has created “a culture of authoritarianism.” Babis has criticized the Pirates as a do-nothing party.

But even some Pirate supporters echo those concerns, unsure whether the party can deliver on its promises in a deeply divided and bitter political climate that mirrors landscapes in the U.S. and other Western democracies.

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“I have to be a bit skeptical even of the Pirates Party,” says Veronika Bayerova, a 22-year-old student at Charles University, who says she supports their program. “They make some promises that I really like, but they seem difficult to make a reality.”

The party has also drawn criticism from the new head of the government’s anti-drug council after introducing a comprehensive bill to Parliament earlier this month that would legalize the growing of marijuana.

“It has been considered a medicine in the Czech Republic for a long time, but the government is not able to supply to the people who can benefit from it … so this is a way to solve that problem,” Hrib says.

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