bne IntelliNews – BLOG VISEGRAD: Babis uses Orban playbook to chase after reelection
“Certainly not that,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said with his back to a gang of sinister masked protesters chanting slogans and waving placards. They demand the admission of migrants, the reign of Brussels, lower pensions, higher property taxes, a ban on gasoline-powered cars and the punishment of those who succeed. “I’ll protect you from these crazy people,” Babis promises in his Czech with Slovak accents.
The ridiculous Facebook video, available here, was a new low in Babis’s slanderous campaign against the Liberal Pirate Party and its dreadlocked leader Ivan Bartos, whom its public relations officials have deemed to be the main threat to the billionaire’s re-election chances Slovak next week. general election.
Babis declared his intentions at the start of the campaign when he said hackers would force Czechs to house migrants in their apartments and make them a minority in their own country. None of these policies are of course in the Pirates manifesto – the party sued the prime minister for libel – but Babis is fighting for his political life and throwing anything against the opposition hoping something will hold.
“It is very difficult to be in an election campaign where not everyone plays by the same rules,” said pirate MP Jan Lipavsky. bne IntelliNews in a written response. “We don’t use misinformation and lies about other parties, while at the same time trying to ‘wash our name’. We have been on the defensive at times, but we have decided not to let our opponents spread lies without trying to correct them.
Babis’ otherwise shrewd campaign – funded in part from his own pocket – used the possibility of a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan to resurrect the threat of phantom migration that has previously worked so well for him and his companions. strong populists, the Hungarian Viktor Orban and the Pole Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Czechia is not a destination for migrants, but many voters were persuaded by the billionaire’s media empire and his social media posts – bolstered by disinformation websites – that their way of life is back on track. in danger.
The “less terrible”
When Babis became prime minister in 2017, some commentators predicted he would reject the populism he used to overtake his social democratic partners to become the dominant party in the reelected coalition.
We were assured that he was a pragmatic and multilingual businessman, with investments all over 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 really was.
More cynical observers have pointed out that – unlike Orban and Kaczysnki – Babis has no clear ideology and no strong beliefs, so through careful manipulation he could be cast aside. An illiberal non-nationalist by conviction, his real motivations for entering politics seem to be to demand the homage of the country’s other oligarchs – who have always despised the former communist fertilizer seller and secret police informant – and to protect his business interests.
“He has almost no opinions,” says Robert Casensky, editor-in-chief of Journalist magazine, who stepped down as editor-in-chief of the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes when it was purchased by Babis. “He just wants power – [while] Orban wants to shape 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 obvious conflicts of interest between his political power and his commercial and media interests, his constant bait of Brussels and its agitation against immigrants and Muslims. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel would consider him “the least terrible” of the three strongmen in Central Europe.
The European Commission has therefore refrained from treating him in the same way as Orban or Kaczynski. For example, the EU demanded that the Czech government tighten its controls on conflicts of interest, but it nonetheless released the first installment of the money from the country’s stimulus fund, unlike Poland and Hungary.
Western European leaders of course realized that Babis was not the partner they were counting on, and he, in turn, realized that they weren’t taking him as seriously as he thought they were. ‘he deserved to be.
The Commission has now halted subsidy payments to Babis’ agrochemical conglomerate, Agrofert, due to its conflicts of interest (although the Czech government continues to pay them and is appealing the decision). In response, Babis says the EU is attacking him for opposing his migration policy.
Nevertheless, the EU remains paralyzed by fears that a harsher sanction will only bring Babis closer to Orban. Yet it is now clear that Babis has already joined Orban, which has enabled the Hungarian leader to turn the Visegrad Four group of the Central European States into a fan club. Regarding migration and measures to improve climate change in particular, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are now using 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 are now. Last week, the two prime ministers visited Hungary’s border fence with Serbia and Babis offered to help 50 Czech police officers to help guard it.
The two prime ministers also attended the Hungarian leader’s “Demographic Summit” in Budapest – held to show that incentives to have children are better than immigration in stopping population decline – where Orban said: “Andrej, there will be elections in your country, we beg you a lot, WIN! Let’s speak clearly, this will not happen without you and the Czechs!
Unlike Orban’s enthusiastic support, Renew Europe’s lack of support for Babis in this election is deafening.
Orban, who is popular with the elderly electorate in the small town of Babis, also traveled to the underprivileged northern region of Ustecky on Wednesday, where the prime minister chose to run against Bartos as the head of his party list. However, this was not the triumph Babis hoped for: the press conference was conducted in typical Orban style, with the exclusion of difficult journalists, which angered the still largely free Czech media.
Earlier this year, Babis’ chances of re-election appeared to be fading. The government could claim few real achievements other than opening its checkbook to increase pensions, teachers’ salaries and social benefits, cut taxes and raise the minimum wage. These initiatives were in any case largely pushed by the Social Democrats, junior partner of ANO, even if Babis had succeeded in robbing them of the credit.
Additionally, the flaws in Babis’ “managerial populism” have been highlighted by his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 10-minute country has suffered more than 30,000 deaths, nearly three times as many as neighboring Austria, which has a similar population.
“That 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, the current number of infections is low (but rising), the economy is now rebounding and the memories are short. The ANO is once again well ahead in opinion polls, aided by its aggressive campaign, the toothless opposition response which has largely focused on Babis and the private media owned by the oligarch, giving it some strong chances of being re-elected.
President Milos Zeman, a close ally of Babis, has already announced that he will give the leader of the largest party the first chance to form a cabinet after the elections, even if the pirate coalition or the center-right SPOLU wins more. of seats. The two coalitions have pledged to unite in an attempt to oust Babis.
Since the constitution sets no deadline for this process, Zeman could allow Babis to rule for many months before he needs to win a vote of confidence. Given that the country is due to assume the rotating EU presidency next July, this would put enormous pressure on SPOLU’s main party, the right-wing Eurosceptic ODS, to reach a deal with Babis, possibly in return. of the post of Prime Minister.
Worse than that, Babis could instead form a minority government backed by unreformed communists and the party of far-right populist showman Tomio Okamura. Such a government would bring 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 won’t hesitate to use it,” Casensky said. bne IntelliNews in an interview.
This type of government would also prolong Babis’ creeping takeover of state institutions and accelerate the oligarchization of the country.
“Andrej Babis’ connection with the state is truly something unprecedented,” said Benjamin Roll, leader of the pro-democracy protest movement Million Moments. bne IntelliNews in an interview. “Agrofert is developing within the state and state officials are starting to care more about the interests of Andrej Babis than the public.”
Babis has already replaced the Minister of Justice and Supreme Prosecutor, ensuring that the investigation for fraud against him will be stopped soon after the elections. An extremist-backed government would also replace the head of the public broadcaster and launch cultural wars against minorities and civil society groups.
So far, Czech institutions have resisted a populist takeover, but that’s because Babis never had a constitutional majority, unlike Orban or Kaczynski, and the Senate is run by the opposition.
In a notorious exchange with ambassadors captured at the microphone in 2015, Babis showed his fascination with Orban’s style and openly envied the way he reigned without constraints. “It’s not as good here as in Hungary,” he said. “There, they have all the government and can make decisions. There are still discussions here, committees meet, it is nonsense.”
Babis, allied with Zeman and the extremist parties, could now test these remaining constitutional defenses until destruction.
“It would create even more divisions in society,” said David Ondracka, former head of the Czech branch of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. bne IntelliNews in an interview. “I would expect more street protests. This would of course also lead to attacks on independent institutions. “
Whether with the ODS or the extremist parties, a third government involving the ANO would also prepare Babis for a switch to the presidency in early 2023 when Zeman is required to step down, which will give him immunity from prosecution. If successful, then Babis could potentially remain a dominant figure in Czech politics for another decade.
Brussels now hopes that either the two opposition coalitions can somehow concoct a majority, or at least Babis’s populist instincts will be tamed by forming a government with parts of the center-right group SPOLU.
Otherwise, by still doing too little, too late in the face of authoritarian populism, the EU could soon suffer from its third big headache in Central Europe.