Notes on Czech Politics

Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/32-notes-on-czech-politics

One generalization about Eastern European politics is that these countries are at the forefront of nationalist movements, anti-EU political rhetoric, anti-migrant politics. In Poland and Hungary, one finds the strongest right-wing populist forces, as they dominate the government there. In the Czech Republic, the trend is somewhat less extreme. Czechia is among the wealthier members of the eastern European states, but their political trend shows that Czech politics is also moving toward a peculiar form of populism.

The strongest party is the centrist-populist ANO, which is led by businessman Andrej Babis, who has been prime minister since the 2017 parliamentary elections. Babis is the second richest man in Czechia, having spent many years in exile in Morocco until he returned after the installment of democracy in the early-1990s. Babis took advantage of social connections in the Communist Party to gain ownership over Agrofert, a subsidiary of Petrimex, a state-run foreign trading company for agrochemicals. Agrofert later became a giant conglomerate. The conglomerate holds businesses in agriculture, food, chemical, construction, logistics, forestry, energy and mass media in China and in many European countries. In less than 20 years, Babis built up a massive fortune, but was no longer content merely running businesses. In 2011, he joined politics by founding his political party, vowing to fight corruption and the ills of the Czech political system. In 2013, ANO contested the first elections and promptly received 47 of the 200 parliamentary seats. Babis promptly entered the coalition government, receiving the finance minister and deputy prime minister post. That came as a shock to the two major parties, the social democratic CSSD and the conservative ODS, that dominated politics the more than 20 years since the introduction of democracy in 1990.

The 2013 election also brought Tomio Okamura’s Dawn, which became the Movement of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) in 2015, into parliament. SPD was a Euroskpetic, anti-immigrant and pro-direct democracy party. The number of seats increased from 14 to 22. Okamura is campaigning against taking up any refugees and for a referendum to exit the EU. Okamura receives the endorsement of the influential Marine LePen, the leader of the National Front, the leading right-wing populist party in France. Okamura is quite a strange proponent of Czech nationalism given that his father is Japanese. Okamura grew up in both Japan and Czechia before settling in Czechia as adult. He operates a tourist business, luring Japanese tourists to visit Czechia. Ironically, he represents globalization and ethnic diversity, yet his political project points toward nationalism and ethnic purity. What somewhat helps his cause is that there are only a handful of Japanese people in Czechia, while much of the anti-foreign resentment is focused on the Roma people and Middle Eastern refugees. He also defends himself against any racist allegations that his mother is full-blooded Czech. His right-wing voters do not seem to care anyway, and the greater public support in part comes from his extensive social media presence, which is focused on sharing viral anti-migrant stories.

Exiting the EU would be fatal for Czechia. The former president Vaclav Klaus (2003-2013) had advocated for the accession to the EU, which occurred in 2004 along with the other Visegrad states. Klaus is no longer as optimistic about the benefits of EU membership, but warns against exiting the EU, which would create even more complications than for the much more powerful British. Macro-level data such as unemployment rate (1.9%), GDP growth (4.3% in 2017) and life expectancy (peaked at 78.82 in 2014, but declined to 78.33 in 2016) seem to suggest that the Czech people don’t have much to complain about. But the success of unconventional political parties, including the Pirate party which became the third largest force in 2017, suggests that many Czechs are fearing that they don’t benefit from economic development.

Putting a billionaire like Babis in charge is strongly reminiscent to Silvio Berlusconi and Donald Trump. They are very wealthy people, who claim that their wealth insulates them from corruption, and that they are the only people who could clean the political system. They promise to run the government like a business and create tons of jobs. They promise halting the hordes of refugees (that never entered Czechia in substantial numbers). While their statement of the symptom is correct, they are misguided with their solutions. Babis, for instance, is primarily concerned about attaining power, and using the levers of government to benefit his own business. After serving for four years as finance minister, he was forced to surrender ownership control over his business given conflict of interest, though the instituted trusts are still in his name. Babis obtained 2 million euros in EU subsidies that went to his farm. The Czech police requested the suspension of Babis parliamentary immunity so he can be prosecuted. He is accused of fraud and criminal conspiracy. The European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) also took on investigations and delivered a report to the Czech authorities in December 2017.

By this time, Babis had become the clear winner of the parliamentary elections. The CSSD lost 35 of its 50 seats. The communists also lost many seats (-18), but Babis ANO became the big winner, receiving 78 of the 200 seats. Babis also had a powerful ally in president Milos Zeman, who himself had won re-election in 2018, campaigning on pro-Russian, Euroskeptic and anti-migrant statements. After the election, Zeman promptly appointed Babis as prime minister. Because most parties refused to cooperate with Babis, he decided to form a minority government, which promptly was voted down in a no confidence vote. Instead of calling for new snap elections, Babis negotiated a coalition government with the CSSD and got a confidence and supply agreement with the Communists, both the big losers of the prior election. The CSSD had entered a coalition with ANO and the Christian Democrats, the KDU-CSL between 2014 and 2017 under CSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka. Sobotka had quit the government coalition in 2017 after the Babis corruption allegations were aired, but president Zeman had convinced Sobotka to stay. Sobotka stayed on as prime minister but sacked the finance minister Babis. But politicians apparently have a short memory, and in any case, the election defeat ended Sobotka’s political career, while Babis party became the biggest in the country. The Czechs voted for Babis in droves hoping to overcome corruption, but he is at the epicenter of corruption in Czech politics.

In April 2019, the Czech police recommended the indictment of Babis on the fraud charge. Babis promptly replaced the Minister of Justice with an ally, Marie Benesoava, which led to countrywide protests. Babis publicly denies any wrongdoing, citing a witch-hunt against him to interfere with his political promise to ruffle feathers with the establishment. The process is reminiscent of the US, where the Trump-appointed attorney general, William Barr, is directly responsible for handling the Muller report, which investigated the ties between Trump and the Russians interfering in US elections. The fox should guard the henhouse. Why should a loyalist remain true to the rule of law? The EU recently released a report stating that prime minister Babis has a conflict of interest, because his business empire is placed in a trust fund, which garners EU and national contracts, i.e. fraud. The European Commission may decide to cut EU funding (Japan Times 2019). Last month tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Prague to demand the ouster of prime minister Babis (Janicek 2019). Babis is facing criminal charges, but over the short term remains intent on retaining power. Similar to Vladimir Putin in Russia, he seems to be unwilling to surrender power, because that could mean the loss of political immunity, a fall from grace and potentially even jail time. Amid all this, ANO still received the most votes in the EU parliament elections, gaining 21% or 6 seats. In another strange twist of events, his son Andrej Babis Jr. claims to have been abducted in Crimea to stop him from testifying in Czechia on his father’s business dealings.

The inability of Czech politics to settle down reflects the instability of a young democracy, which is already weakened by the takeover of a billionaire president, who promises a clean-up of corruption but really personifies corruption and makes the situation even more explosive so that the true right-wingers take over. While Okamura wants to undermine further EU integration, Babis is more cautious about calls to withdraw from the EU. Unlike Orban and Kaczynski, Babis steers a more moderate course with fewer direct lines of conflict with the EU (Tait 2019), though this might change if the EU gets serious in denying the Czechs EU funds. Between a xenophobic nationalist and an opportunist billionaire open to xenophobia, centrist democratic governance is unlikely to prevail, so we better continue watching the trends in Czechia.

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