Czechs went to the polls in parliamentary elections Friday and Saturday, and billionaire businessman Andrej Babis – a man who’s been called the “Czech Trump” – won big, as expected.
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Babis and his ANO party (Union of Dissatisfied Citizens, spelling out “yes” in Czech) took more than 30% of the vote – almost three times as much as its nearest rival, the Euroskeptic right-wing Civic Democrats buoyed by the support of voters who bought into Babis' outsider, government-as-business message.
It won’t be easy forming a coalition in the Czech parliament with Babis as Prime Minister. Several of the other nine parties now represented in Parliament have said they won’t work with Babis.
Babis is so much more than just a Czech Trump
The son of a high-ranking Czechoslovakian diplomat, Babis spent parts of his childhood in France and Switzerland and speaks fluent French. He spent time in the 1980s working for a Czechoslovak state-controlled foreign trade company in Morocco.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Babis utilized the connections he developed during that time to set up what has become his corporate empire: Agrofert. He has his hands in everything from fertilizers to farm equipment, and employs 33,000 people in 250 separate firms. He’s worth more than $4 billion, and is the second-richest man in the Czech Republic.
“Don’t vote for Babis – he’s StB”
But Babis has long been dogged by allegations that he was doing something else during the 1980s: working as an agent for the notorious Communist-era Czechoslovak secret police, the StB.
Although a Slovak court ruled that Babis was incorrectly registered as an agent of the secret police in 2015, the highest court in Slovakia recently threw out that ruling. This means that Slovakia’s Memory Institute (UPN), which claims it has evidence Babis was an agent under the code name “Bure,” can continue to push its case. For his part, Babis strongly denies the allegations; he’s pledged to keep taking the UPN to court to clear his name.
Babis has been accused of misusing $2.25 million worth of EU subsidies for Čapí hnízdo (Stork’s Nest), a conference centre outside Prague built by a company formerly owned by Babis. Babis has denied the allegations (“there is a campaign against me,” he said recently).
The case against him was convincing enough, however, for Czech police to charge Babis with fraud less than two weeks before the election. He calls it all a “pseudo-case.”
Babis owns more than just fertilizers and farm equipment. He owns two of the Czech Republic’s largest newspapers - Mladá fronta Dnes (MF DNES; Youth Front Today), the second most read paper in the country, and Lidové noviny (People’s News), the country’s oldest newspaper. He also owns the most popular radio station, Impuls, and has been rumoured to have influence at Prima, a popular television station he once tried to buy.
Observers have long argued that he bought these unprofitable outlets in order to expand his influence and further his political ambitions. He bought them in 2013 after forming ANO eighteen months earlier, and just a few months before entering parliament for the first time as finance minister, where he was careful to take credit for some of the government’s most popular decisions, including pension hikes.
But Babis hasn’t exactly stood back from his media holdings like he said he would. Babis was caught on tape earlier this year coordinating negative coverage of his political opponents with a journalist at MF DNES, resulting in his ouster from cabinet by Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, a longtime political rival whose party was crushed in today’s elections.
An illiberal democrat-in-waiting?
Many international observers have recently expressed concern that Babis will lead the Czech Republic down an anti-democratic path like Poland and Hungary, where backslides over democracy and rule of law have earned the ire of Brussels. Babis has pledged, among other things, to get rid of the Czech senate, halve the number of parliamentarians and switch to a British-style, winner-take-all electoral system.
But not everyone is convinced that Babis is going to immediately lead the country down that kind of path.
“He’s less of a fundamental threat to his country than [Viktor] Orban in Hungary or [Jaroslaw] Kaczynski in Poland,” said Cunningham, a Prague-based correspondent for The Economist who has interviewed Babis on multiple occasions. Babis, says Cunningham, is much more pragmatic and less ideologically driven than his compatriots in other parts of central and eastern Europe.
Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher on central Europe at Freedom House, thinks that Babis’ election is concerning, given the power he already wields in the country and his disdain for checks and balances.
“But we shouldn’t forget that the country is a democracy with relatively well-functioning institutions,” Csaky told Haaretz.
“Now these institutions, as well as the media and civil society, will have to show that they can push back against [Babis’s] majoritarian temptations."