Tim Gosling - Prague - BIRN - June 21, 2019
Taken from Balkan Insight website
Scandals and protests besiege Andrej Babis but the Czech prime minister is going nowhere.
Andrej Babis hates being called the Czech Donald Trump. Yet the resemblances are rife. Both billionaires rode to power on populist promises to bring down a corrupt political elite. They share a habit of crude outbursts.
But the strongest similarity is their Teflon coating — their ability to slough off scandals that run to the very heart of their political platforms.
Trump maintains the support of the religious right and conservatives despite allegations of sexual harassment and adultery. Babis launched his ANO party in 2011 appealing to popular anger over a political system rife with corruption, but persistent accusations of fraud and graft have not dented support.
ANO won 2017 elections with 29 per cent of the vote. Fast forward 20 months and criminal charges hang over the prime minister, while the EU is demanding that Prague return millions of euros of structural funds due to his conflicts of interest.
Worries that the prime minister is conniving with Czech President Milos Zeman — known for his pro-Russia and pro-Chinese views — to destroy the independence of the judiciary have provoked the largest demonstrations in the country since 1989’s Velvet Revolution.
But despite this rap sheet, polls show that ANO’s support remains close to 30 per cent, around double that of its nearest rival.
Five of the nine parties represented in parliament have called a motion of no-confidence in the ANO-led minority coalition, but they hold only 87 of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies lower house.
Even in the unlikely event that the government falls, ousting ANO from power looks impossible for the meantime, said Jakub Michalek, parliamentary faction leader for the Pirate Party, which vies with the conservative ODS for the title of largest opposition party with 13-17 per cent support, according to polls.
Prague had the largest protest since the fall of communism on June 4 as an estimated 120,000 demonstrators took to the streets, calling for Babis to quit. Organisers hope more than 200,000 will rally on June 23.
It will be the fifth major demonstration in the capital since Marie Benesova was appointed justice minister in April.
The longtime confidante of President Zeman was suddenly handed the job a day after police recommended that Babis be prosecuted for fraudulently claiming an EU subsidy worth two million euros (50 million Czech crowns) for the Capi Hnezdo (Stork’s Nest) resort in 2007.
Protesters across the country fear that Czech democratic institutions are under the kind of authoritarian attack seen in neighbouring Poland and Hungary.
“People understand it’s no longer a game,” said Mikulas Minar, one of the student founders and chairman of the Milion Chvilek non-governmental organisation behind the protests. “This is an assault on democracy. We don’t want to go the way of our neighbours.”
The demonstrators received a boost in late May when a leaked EU audit stated that Babis remains in control of Agrofert, his agrochemicals conglomerate.
The billionaire had put Agrofert into trust before becoming prime minister in 2017, but the company has since only firmed up its status as the Czech Republic’s biggest recipient of EU subsidies.
Critics say Babis is rattled. With business interests spanning the EU, he has long sought to project the image of a respectable Western European leader, but as the pressure has grown, out have tumbled the populist tropes.
He has dismissed the EU audit as “fake news” and called it an attack on the Czech Republic. He has suggested that US billionaire and liberal philanthropist George Soros is behind the protests.
“Babis’ decision making is increasingly instinctive and emotional,” said Michalek of the Pirate Party.
The prime minister is now likely looking to the summer holidays, and hoping they take the wind out of protesters’ sails.
“If the demonstrations continue to grow, we could start to see some effect on support for Babis,” said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst who was an advisor to former President Vaclav Havel and is now director of New York University’s academic center in Prague.
But ejecting Babis from power looks a tall order.
Daniel Prokop, a sociologist for the Median pollster, says 20 per cent of Czech society subscribes to Babis’ claim that the scandals are part of a conspiracy by the corrupt political elite he has usurped.
Neither will the European Union’s central role in the cases against him help convince ANO’s eurosceptic voters, who tend to be older and more provincial. Such voters see Babis as an effective manager who has steered the economy well and boosted social spending. They also tend to suspect that all politicians are bent anyway.
“Ano has secured a part of the electorate that doesn’t really care about democratic standards,” said Michalek. “They especially like that pensions have risen.”
Babis also faces little pressure from within his own party. As ANO’s founder and financial backer, he dominates it entirely.
The crisis is, however, a test for the CSSD, ANO’s junior partner in the minority coalition. The left-leaning party has seen its support consumed by Babis over recent years, meaning it is in no hurry to help force snap elections.
“The CSSD would risk losing their parliamentary mandate if they face voters now,” said Vit Dostal, research director at the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank.
Yet even should the CSSD surprise by collapsing the coalition, Babis has support elsewhere.
The prime minister may be toxic for mainstream and liberal parties, but the communist KSCM (which commands support of 7-11 per cent) and the far-right SPD (with 5-9 per cent support) have his back, polls show.
Following the 2017 election, ANO spent eight months ruling the country with the informal support of these hard-left and hard-right parties, while struggling to form a coalition with a mainstream partner. Analysts say there is little reason to suspect Babis will not repeat the trick if necessary.
“Everyone’s afraid that a vote of no-confidence will simply put ANO and the extremists in power,” Michalek said.
Benjamin Roll, vice-chair of Milion Chvelik, acknowledges that there is a risk that raising the pressure on Babis could backfire by handing greater leverage to arch-populist President Zeman. But he insists the prime minister is the best target in the fight against these shadowy forces.
“The weaker Babis becomes, the stronger the extremists get,” he said. “But Babis is the weak link in the chain. That’s why it’s important to keep the pressure on him. Zeman has nothing to lose.”
The president and the extremist parties with which he is linked already exert considerable influence on the government. Zeman has long run his own foreign policy favouring Russia and China, at odds with Prague’s official pro-Western line.
Babis has defied the head of state on occasion, such as when he ejected Russian diplomats over the Skripal poisoning case in Britain or supported security service warnings against Chinese tech giant Huawei.
But such defiance could become a thing of the past if Zeman and his cohorts become Babis’ only political prop, and protection from a possible prison sentence.
The KSCM, which wants the Czech Republic to leave NATO, hints that the price of its support in the no-confidence vote will be scrapping a deal to buy military helicopters from the United States. The SPD, which campaigns for a Czexit, wants to replace the CSSD in government.
It is not just Babis to blame for the rise of these illiberal forces, say analysts. The opposition has failed to take the initiative against a prime minister battered by scandals that just a few years ago would have been the death any political career.
“The people don’t want the opposition parties to come to the squares to protest,” said Prokop from Median. “They want them to be working on realistic structural reform and policies that would present a real alternative.”
Minar, a scruffy 26-year-old student who has found himself thrust onto the front pages for organising Prague’s protests, said: “We need an alternative to Babis. His voters were disappointed with the situation before and they see no one better.”
Michalek said the Pirates have presented proposals for reform but they are a tough story to sell.
“Pension reform isn’t going to help us win over Babis’ voters,” he said with a grimace.
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