Tag Archives: Babis

A billionaire populist derails the Czech Social Democrats

On 26 October after two terms in opposition the Social Democrats (ČSSD) emerged as the largest party in early elections in the Czech Republic with the near certainty of the forming the next government. Their political opponents on centre-right whose tottering three-year coalition government finally collapsed amid personal and political scandal in June were routed.

The once dominant Civic Democrats (ODS) founded in 1991 by Václav Klaus to bring British-style Thatcherite conservative to post-communist transformation, was cut down to minor party status with mere 7 per cent of the vote. Its one time partner in government, TOP09, which had championed fiscal austerity slipped to 11 per cent.  The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) – staged a modest recovery edging back into parliament with 6 per cent support, but remained – as they had always been in the Czech lands – a niche party.  ‘Heads Up!’, the newly formed conservative eurosceptic bloc endorsed by former president Václav Klaus, scraped a humiliating 0.42 per cent

 But far from prompting celebration on the centre-left, the result provoked only despondency and dissension. Within days the party was consumed by infighting between supporters of party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and internal opponents allied with the Czech president Miloš Zeman.

The gloom and factionalism are easily explicable. Despite ‘winning’ the election, the Social Democrats’ 20.45 per cent was its lowest in the history of the independent Czech Republic, falling disastrously short of its 25 per cent target vote – let alone the 30 per cent that seemed had attainable at the start of the campaign.  Ominously, for the party, this was the second successive election fought in opposition in which the Social Democrat vote has declined. The Social Democrats’ ‘victory’ was very largely an optical illusion caused by the still heavier punishment meted out by voters to its traditional opponents on the centre-right.

 The result has left the Social Democrats having to come to terms – and quite possibly to govern – with new and unusual political force:  the ANO anti-corruption movement led by agro-food billionaire Andrej Babiš, which in the course of the election campaign moved from extra-parliamentary obscurity to centre-stage, taking 18.65 per cent of the vote to become overnight the Czech Republic’s second biggest party.

 The Social Democrats’ poor showing and the success of Babiš’s movement – as well as the more modest breakthrough of the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy (UPD) group – were not only embarrassing for a party, which had hoped to emulate the sweeping victories won centre-parties in Slovakia and Romania last year. They also drastically curtailed its governmental options.

Having finally decided after years of agonising that a pact (but not a coalition) with the Czech Republic’s hardline Communist Party (KSČM) was a price worth paying for a government of the left with a strong parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats now find that this prospect has disappeared. Together the two parties command a mere 83 seats in the 200 member lower house. Although the Christian Democrats are a biddable potential partner, unlike in previous elections the Social Democrats have few coalition-making options in the political centre.  Except to turn to Andrej Babiš. Read More…

Czech Republic: Why all parties will lose early elections

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Photo: Ntr23 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If as British prime-minister Harold Wilson famously commented, a week is a long time in politics, then a month can be an eternity.

This is certainly the case in the Czech Republic, where both anti-corruption probe that spectacularly brought down the government of prime minister Nečas in May and technocratic caretaker government that President Zeman imposed on a less than enthusiatic parliament have largely collaped.

 The Czech Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of parliamentary immunity of 26 July saw most of the key dramatis personnae from the political world released from jail and charges withdrawn. It remains to be seen whether lines investigation focusing on the affairs of politically-connected business ‘godfathers’ or the misuse of military intelligence to monitor the then prime minister’s wife lead anywhere, but so little has been heard.

 Meanwhile on 7 August as expected, Miloš Zeman’s handpicked ‘government of experts’ under former finance minister Jiří Rusnok failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament. The real story, however, was the disunity of centre-right parties, whose claims they still had a parliamentary majority – and hence a claim to go on governing– were shot to pieces by the failure of three right-wing deputies to vote against Rusnok, the culprits being two Civic Democrat deputies with previous form and the mercurial Karolina Peake, leader of the tiny LIDEM party.

 As political reality dawned on the right, discussion moved at breakneck speed to early elections as centre-right parties agreed to vote with the Social Democrats to dissolve parliament to bring about the early elections left-wing parties claimed they really had always wanted all along.

 Parliament votes tomorrow (20 August) and – despite some speculation from the Zeman camp and some journalists that dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies may not, after all, be a done deal – it seems likely that the Czech Republic will be heading for early elections in October.

 There seems little doubt about who will win (the left) and lose (the right), but the prospect nevertheless raises some crucial questions about the future shape of Czech politics. Read More…

Is there a Czech Berlusconi in the wings?

Political afterlife in Prague? Photo: Frederico Saggini / Wikicommons

A recent report I read suggested that the travails of Public Affairs (VV) party had put voters in the Czech Republic off new political parties: VV, which burst from nowhere onto the political scene in the 2010 elections as an establishment, anti-corruption party, has  rapidly, but not totally, unwound in the two years since as a junior partner – and weakest link – in the current centre-right coalition in Prague.

Lax party discipline, lack of organisation; some very dodgy and incompetent ministers; and rapid confirmation of what many had lon suspected – that the party was a pet project  ABL security company and its owner Vít Bárta, originally conceived to forward their commercial interests in Prague.

But the new party habit, once acquired, can be hard to kick. Numerous small left-wing parties seem, relatively speaking, to be prospering at the political margins and, more remarkably, there still seems to an appetite for  new businessmen anti-politicians peddling an anti-corruption and anti-establishment message. The modern voter’s political crack cocaine…

In recent weeks and months two candidates have stepped forward to offere a new improved version of Public Affairs formula:

Anti-political protest voring: Addictive with short term high? Photo: Pyschonaught/Wikicommons

The first is Andrej Babiš, the super-wealthy owner of the Agrofert food and chemicals conglomerate. Originally hailing from Slovakia, but moving to Prague as a student, Mr Babiš made his fortune in the murky business and political environment of 1990s with all the attendant political connections that you would expect.

His entry into politics – which from what can be gathered was planned quite carefully beforehand – came with an interview in September last year with the Czech equivalent of the FT, Hospodářské noviny, in which he spoke out against levels of corruption in the Czech Republic and called for the creation new civic mobilisation akin in some way to the Civic Forum movement of 1989.

He was, of course, a rather unlikely dissident – the son of a Communist foreign trade official, who had lived abroad for periods in Switzerland and North Africa for periods as boy and later embarked on a the same career. And not only was he himself (naturally) a Party member, but he was also listed as a secret police informer.

But, as he explained in a clever folksy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get appearence on Czech TV’s Jan Kraus Talkshow, this was all already well known (no relevations in store then) and his dealings with StB, ever present in an areas dealing with non-communist world,  were do with mismanaged phosphate imports and commerical contacts, not hunting down dissidents.

The result: Akce nespokojených občanů 2011 (ANO2011), the Discontented Citizens’ Initiative, a citizens’ grouping founded  by Babiš, which combined the internet based organising tactics of VV with current vogue for  new political organisation to have catchy numbers-and-letters acronyms (‘Ano’ = ‘Yes’).

ANO2011’s organisation, running straight out of Agrofert headquarters, however seemed to be pure Forza Italia, as does his argument that the Czech Republic could be managed by practical businesspeople in the manner of a firm, although the is also a nod towards liberal reformist rhetoric that has washed around the ex-dissident centre of Czech politics almost as long as anyone can remember: ANO2011 is, for example, to be  ‘a civic movement composed of trustworthy independent personalities’ opposing vested political interests (all other parties, major and minor, including VV and President Klaus)

All this is rather contrast with the time and care Vít Bárta put in creating VV as a party with semblance of autononous existence and a quite serious and detailed political programme, not without some good idea.

The ANO2011 Appeal is a vague document promising in very non-specific terms to fight corruption, make the rule of law work properly and bring about Swedish or Swiss levels of prosperity. Making a virtue of this – like many new parties – it gets round this by presenting it in terms of transparency and openess, promising consultation with the public, appealing to citizens for their ideas about what should be done.

Inevitably, of course, despite predictable early denials, the movement has plans to becoming a party: it will contest the regional elections later this year with an eye to breaking through to national power in 2012.

A programme of roundtables and events has already kicked off and the movement/party is already recruiting political managers in the regions and hoovering up minor parties and regional groupings for a spot of astro-turfing. Given the scale of Babiš’s resources – his personal wealth and the size of Agrofert’s dwarf that of Bárta – and the postive feedback he received in initial polling (around a third of respondents saying they might vote for him), such programme- and party building may yield quicker than experced dividends, making him may be a force to be reckoned with.

Tomio Okamura Photo: Podzemnik/Wikicommons

A second perhaps more intriguing potential newconer, mooted as a possible presidential candidate by the latest issues of the newsmagazine Respekt, is the Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. The product of a fractured and difficult bi-cultural background, Mr Okamura – who has lived most of his life in the Czech Republic and is a native speaker of the language, is a self-made businessman best known to the public as spokesman for the Czech tourism industry and to TV viewers as part of the line-up of investors on Den-D, the local version of Dragon’s Den.

Although more modestly resourced than either Babiš or Bárta,  Mr Okamura has been similarly building up his public profile, writing a bestselling book about his life and business and a more recent one with the Macheviallian sounding title The Art of Governing.

This, according to Respekt is a mishmash of reformist go-getting sentiment with a nod towards morality and traditional values, interwar Czechoslovakia and (more worryingly) some of the Czech radical right’s nostrums for resettling Roma –  Mr Okamura’s take on inter-ethnic relations in the Czech Republic seems to be that racism is not an obstacles to success and that  minorities should fit in and get with things (as he has).

Inevitably, there is also the same Berlusconi-eque anti-political rhetoric of bringing common sense business solution to political problems found with Babiš, whose entry into politics Okamura welcomes. As he tells readers of his blog with characteristic up-frontness

… the idea of running the state like a firm (firemního vedení státu)… [is] a proposition that fascinates me… The state is one big firm and there is no better solution than it being run by pros.

Experienced people with a sense of material and criminal responsibility. People who have come through in an open selection process, not through the backstage negotiation of party leaderships or regional party cliques.

Bar some exceptional political events and an injection serious financial and political backing, Okamura is unlikely to be a serious contender for the presidency come the Czech Republic’s first direct elections in 2013. He himself seems to be talking (more realistically) of a running at a Senate seat as an independent.

Okamura on Babiš seen through Wordle.net

But despite some hubris and naivity, Mr Okamura has played skillfully on his unusual status as very recognisably Czech  figure who is also at the same an unusual and somewhat unplaceable outsider. The same kind of play helped make Barack Obama – not for nothing is Mr Okamura’s first book called The Czech Dream –  or, more omenously, Peru’s outsider technocrat, turned authoritarian populist President of 1990s, Alberto Fujimori.

Czechs-  like European voters generally these days I guess –  have weakness for anti-political pitches.  The technocratic ex-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer (a statistician not a businessman by background), for example, is likely to prove a popular presidential candidate

Followers of Czech politics of long memories may even remember that in their earliest days the Civic Democrats  – now  often reviled as corrupt, political hacks – based their appeal on an ethos business-like organisation and professionalism (as Magdaléna Hadjiisky ably explains in a recent issue of Sociologický časopis).

All in all, if you are in the Czech political futures market and looking at the stock of businessman-antipolitician start-ups, I can only say ‘Buy!’.