“Definitely not this,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis declares with his back to a cartoon gang of sinister masked protesters chanting slogans and brandishing placards. They demand letting in migrants, rule by Brussels, lower pensions, higher property taxes, banning petrol engine cars and punishing those who are successful. “I will protect you from these madmen,” Babis pledges in his Slovak-inflected Czech.
The ludicrous Facebook video, available here, was a new low in Babis’ defamatory campaign against the liberal Pirate party and its dreadlocked leader Ivan Bartos, who his PR managers judged was the main threat to the Slovak billionaire’s chances of re-election in next week’s general election.
Babis declared his intentions at the start of the campaign when he said the Pirates would force Czechs to house migrants in their flats and would make them a minority in their own country. Neither of these policies are of course found in the Pirates’ manifesto – the party has sued the premier for slander – but Babis is fighting for his political life and is throwing anything at the opposition and hoping something sticks.
“It is very difficult to be in an election campaign where not everyone is playing by the same rules,” Pirate MP Jan Lipavsky told bne IntelliNews in a written answer. “We are not using disinformation and lies about other parties, while at the same time trying to ‘clear our name’. At times we have been defensive but we decided not to let our opponents spread lies without trying to correct them.”
Babis’ otherwise slick campaign – funded partly out of his own pocket – has used the possibility of a new refugee wave from Afghanistan to resurrect the phantom migration threat that has worked so well before for him and his fellow populist strongmen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Czechia is not a migrant destination but many voters have been persuaded by the billionaire’s media empire and his social media posts – reinforced by disinformation websites – that their way of life is once again in danger.
The 'least terrible'
When Babis first became premier in 2017 some commentators predicted that he would discard the populism he had used to leapfrog over his Social Democrat partners to become the dominant party in the re-elected coalition.
We were assured that he was a pragmatic, multi-lingual businessman, with investments across Europe, and the fact that his personal vehicle, the ANO party, had joined the liberal Renew Europe group in the European Parliament (which includes French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche!) showed where his heart truly lay.
More cynical observers pointed out that – unlike Orban and Kaczysnki – Babis has no clear ideology and no strong beliefs, so by careful handling he could be brought on side. Not an illiberal nationalist by conviction, his real motivations for entering politics appeared to be to demand homage from the country’s other oligarchs – who had always looked down on the former Communist fertiliser salesman and secret police informer – and to protect his business interests.
“He has almost no opinions,” says Robert Casensky, editor of Reporter magazine, who quit as editor of daily Mlada Fronta Dnes when it was bought by Babis. “He just wants power – [while] Orban wants to form his country according to his will.”
Western European leaders have always given him the benefit of the doubt, despite Babis’ EU fraud case, the huge and clear conflicts of interest between his political power and his business and media interests, his constant baiting of Brussels and his rabble rousing against immigrants and Muslims. Outgoing German chancellor Angela Merkel is said to regard him as “the least terrible” of the three Central European strongmen.
The European Commission therefore shied away from treating him the same way as Orban or Kaczynski. For instance, the EU has demanded that the Czech government reinforces its conflict of interest controls but it nevertheless still released the first tranche of the country’s recovery fund money, in contrast to Poland and Hungary.
Western European leaders of course have realised that Babis is not the partner they had counted on, and he, in his turn, has realised that they are not taking him as seriously as he thought he deserves to be.
The Commission has now halted grant payments to Babis’ agro-chemical conglomerate Agrofert because of his conflicts of interest (though the Czech government is still paying them out and is appealing the decision). In response, Babis says the EU is attacking him for his opposition to its migrant policy.
Nevertheless, the EU remains paralysed by the fear that tougher punishment would only drive Babis closer to Orban. Yet it has now become clear that Babis has already thrown in his lot with Orban, which has enabled the Hungarian leader to turn the Visegrad Four grouping of Central European states into a fan club. On migration and measures to ameliorate climate change in particular, Hungary, Poland and Czechia now use the V4 forum to play a purely negative and obstructive role in EU debates.
The election campaign has shown how close the ties between Babis and Orban now are. Last week the two premiers visited Hungary’s border fence with Serbia and Babis offered 50 Czech police to help guard it.
Both premiers also attended the Hungarian leader’s “Demographic Summit” in Budapest – organised to show that incentives for having children are better than immigration at halting population decline – where Orban declared: “Andrej there will be elections in your country, we beg you very much, WIN! Let’s talk clearly, it’s not going to happen without you and the Czechs!”
By contrast with Orban’s enthusiastic backing, Renew Europe’s lack of support for Babis in this election is deafening.
On Wednesday, Orban, who is popular with Babis’ elderly small town electorate, also visited the deprived northern Ustecky region where the premier has chosen to stand against Bartos as head of his party list. However, it wasn’t the triumph that Babis had hoped for: the press conference was run in typical Orban style, with difficult journalists excluded, which grated with the still largely free Czech media.
Earlier this year Babis’ chances of winning re-election appeared to be slipping away. The government could claim few real achievements apart from opening its chequebook to boost pensions, teachers’ pay and welfare payments, cutting taxes and raising the minimum wage. These initiatives were in any case largely pushed by the Social Democrats, ANO’s junior partner, though Babis had managed to steal the credit for them.
Moreover, the flaws in Babis’ “managerial populism” have been shown up by his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country of 10mn has suffered more than 30,000 deaths, almost three times as many as neighbouring Austria, which has a similar population.
“This should have been his main qualification – ‘running the country like a business’,” says Casensky. “Instead we saw that he is not a manager at all.”
But luckily for Babis, current infection numbers are low (but rising), the economy is now rebounding and memories are short. ANO is now well ahead in the opinion polls again, helped by its aggressive campaign, the toothless opposition response that has largely focussed on Babis, and the oligarch-owned private media, giving it a strong chance of winning re-election.
President Milos Zeman, a close Babis ally, has already announced that he will give the leader of the biggest party the first chance to form a cabinet after the elections, even if the Pirates’ coalition or the centre-right SPOLU one wins more seats. Both coalitions have pledged to join together to try to oust Babis.
Since the constitution puts no deadlines on this process, Zeman could allow Babis to rule for many months before he has to win a vote of confidence. Given the country is due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency next July, this would put huge pressure on SPOLU’s leading party, the rightwing Eurosceptic ODS, to reach a deal with Babis, perhaps in exchange for the premiership.
Worse than this, Babis might instead form a minority government backed by the unreformed Communists and the party of the far right populist showman Tomio Okamura. Such a government would move the country closer to Russia and hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU and Nato.
“The danger would be that if this kind of populism keeps him alive, he would not hesitate to use it,” Casensky told bne IntelliNews in an interview.
This kind of government would also prolong Babis’ creeping takeover of state institutions and accelerate the country’s oligarchisation.
“The connection of Andrej Babis and the state is really something unprecedented,” Benjamin Roll, leader of the Million Moments pro-democracy protest movement, told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “Agrofert is growing inside the state and state officials are starting to care more about the interests of Andrej Babis than about the public.”
Babis has already replaced the justice minister and supreme prosecutor, ensuring that the fraud investigation against him will be halted soon after the election. An extremist-backed government would also replace the head of the public broadcaster, and launch culture wars against minorities and civil society groups.
Up till now Czech institutions have proved resilient against a populist takeover, but this is because Babis has never had a constitutional majority, unlike Orban or Kaczynski, and the Senate is led by the opposition.
In a notorious exchange with ambassadors captured on a microphone in 2015, Babis showed his fascination with Orban’s style and openly envied the way that he ruled without constraints. "It's not as good here as in Hungary,” he said. “There they have the whole government and can make decisions. There is still discussion here, commissions meet, it's nonsense.”
Babis, allied with Zeman and the extremist parties, could now test these remaining constitutional defences to destruction.
“This would create even more division in society,” David Ondracka, former head of the Czech branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, told bne IntelliNews in an interview. “I would expect more street protests. It would also of course lead to attacks on independent institutions.”
Whether with the ODS or the extremist parties, a third government involving ANO would also set Babis up nicely for a tilt at the presidency in early 2023 when Zeman has to step down, giving him immunity from prosecution. If he were successful, Babis could then potentially remain a dominant figure in Czech politics for another decade.
Brussels will now be hoping that either the two opposition coalitions can somehow cobble together a majority, or at least that Babis’s populist instincts will be tamed by forming a government with parts of the SPOLU centre-right grouping.
Otherwise, by once again doing too little, too late in the face of authoritarian populism, the EU could soon be suffering from its third big headache in Central Europe.