In spring 2019, Czech politics was largely shaped by the European Parliament election campaign and election results as well as by ongoing street protests against controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to allegations of conflict of interests and other affairs.
Before turning to the results of the vote for the European Parliament in the Czech Republic, I will summarize problems Andrej Babiš is currently facing. Anti-Babiš demonstrations have been regularly organized by a civic initiative called „Millions of Moments for Democracy“, which seeks to attract the general public’s attention to multiple problems related to Babiš’s political and notably economic interests. First, is in a gigantic conflict of interest because of his business conglomerate “Agrofert” of some 250 companies. Agrofert receives tens of millions of euros each year in EU funding, mostly farm subsidies. Even though Agrofert was placed in trust funds in 2017 to comply with a new conflict of interest law, Babiš has command of trust funds that control the Agrofert group and Babiš’s cabinet formulates farming, environmental and other policies that affect Agrofert business. Since Babiš came to power, there has been a clear rise in the total amount of subsidies for the Agrofert conglomerate. The subsidies outweigh the amount of taxes paid by Agrofert to the state. The above civic as well as partisan opposition, was fueled by a European Commission’s report that confirms that Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest. The Czech branch of Transparency International which initiated the EU probe estimated the Czech Republic would have to return about 19 million euros in EU subsidies. Consequently, the Czech government will be obliged to claim the money back from Agrofert. The opposition Pirate Party claimed it would seek a vote of no confidence in the minority cabinet led by Babiš. However, the government may count on a solid base of support in the Chamber of Deputies. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, have proved reliable support parties.
However, this is not the only instance of conflict of interests for Babiš. Agrofert is the owner of two national newspapers with high circulation, several magazines and a radio station, a fact that allows Babiš to significantly affect the media atmosphere in the country, including his own media image. Babiš also faces the charge of the alleged misuse of 2 mil euros in EU subsidy. Moreover, Babiš has been criticized for having sacked the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek, who resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped up their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial over the above-mentioned affair of misappropriating an EU subsidy. Mrs. Marie Benešová, President’s Zeman advisor, was appointed to replace him at the head of the Ministry of Justice. Protesters complain that Benešová may hinder the independent work of judges and affect the final outcome of the trial.
Despite these serious problems which would likely derail the political careers of most politicians elsewhere, Babiš remains the dominant figure of Czech party politics. This is exemplified by the fact that his political party (officially called “movement”) – ANO 2011 – won a relative majority in the European Parliament elections. Sure, his victory was not as great as expected by many commentators and polls, still, ANO 2011 gained two more seats in comparison to the 2014 EP elections. Overall, opposition parties won a majority of 12 out of 21 MEPs, whereas the ruling parties, including the two support parties scored 9 MEPs.
To explain the dominance of ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic is not an easy task. The party has been a ruling party since 2014 (as a junior coalition party 2014-2017). One could expect the gradual decline of its popularity, as has been the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) that has been in power together with ANO 2011 since 2014 (in 2014-2017 as the leading coalition party). ČSSD and ANO exchanged roles after ANO won in the 2017 elections. It could be generally argued that in contrast to the ČSSD, Andrej Babiš and his business-firm party has been skillful in communicating its policies and political successes to the voters. Babiš is a charismatic figure and remained a popular chairman of the party, portraying himself as a successful businessman which made him also a successful politician. He was able to reap major credit for rising pensions and for a good economic performance of the country, including rising GDP per capita and notably almost non-existent unemployment. His party uses efficient political marketing and promotes Andrej Babiš as a leader who is able to deliver the policies that most people wish for.
In contrast, the ČSSD failed in the elections and gained no MEP. Its voters deserted to ANO and other political parties. The ČSSD lacks charismatic figures, clear policy messages and remains torn between a liberal pro-European wing on the one hand and a national-conservative Eurosceptical wing on the other hand. Some former ČSSD’s voters cannot forgive the party for being in the ruling coalition with Babiš’ ANO 2011. Other voters, who value liberal democratic principles, opt for other parties, including the Czech Pirate Party. Traditional left-wing voters may consider Babiš as more skillful than the ČSSD in securing social benefits. Shortly before the EP elections, ČSSD’s reputation might have been negatively affected also by the fact that the ČSSD’s Minister of Culture, Antonín Staněk, demonstrated a lack of competence and resigned. It is uncommon that ministers of culture, a generally weak portfolio with a small budget, attract so much attention. In media terms, Staněk was originally almost an invisible minister. Media focused on him only two times, both times unfavorably. First, he participated in the presentation of a controversial book written by a communist MP, Miroslav Grebeníček, who strongly criticized financial compensetion to churches in the Czech Republic. The churches were deprived of their properties during the 1948-1989 Communist dictatorship and in 2013 the right-wing coalition pushed trhough a bill which introduced the compensation. Second, Staněk recalled the director of the National Gallery in Prague as well as the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. The arguments that were to support the recall of both directors appeared unconvincing and led to a number of protests and petitions against Staněk who eventually resigned from office. The ČSSD was pictured as a party, which lacks enough competent persons to fill ministerial posts.
There is a special feature of the Czech politics that is related to the ČSSD electoral disaster in 2019. There has been a tradition of (at least rhetorically) non-partisan presidents. At the same time, however, the Czech presidents have repeatedly attempted to form a loyal party in the Chamber of Deputies. However, once they openly supported any political party, the party failed in the elections. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “the kiss of death”, can be consistently and repeatedly illustrated by all the three Czech presidents. None of them was able to create solid partisan support in the Chamber of Deputies. From public opinion surveys, it can be inferred that voters insist on a non-partisan president who is not directly associated with any political party loyal to the head of state. As for the most recent case of the kiss of death, Miloš Zeman strongly advocated for ČSSD’s involvement in Babiš’s cabinet in 2017. At the March 2019 ČSSD party congress, Zeman praised the party for having joined the coalition and made it clear he would vote for the party, which received less than 5 percent in the EP elections. Of course, Zeman’s kiss of death can be hardly identified as the primary source of the ČSSD’s debacle, still it has confirmed this peculiar pattern of Czech politics.
M. Brunclík and M.
Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and
New York: Routledge, 2019), 110-113