- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that he will submit his government’s resignation later this week.
Why would a prime minister disband his own government, which has been in place and relatively stable since 2014?
There are two reasons, and they both have to do with Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis, the second-richest man in the Czech Republic and the leader of the anti-establishment, pro-business party, ANO. Sobotka’s center-left Czech Social Democratic Party, CSSD, and ANO are currently in a governing coalition together.
Babis is under investigation in the Czech Republic over suspicion he avoided paying taxes, and questions related to how he made his money. The European Union is also investigating Babis for fraud. Babis is owner of the massive Agrofert chemicals. Although he put the company in a trust in early 2017 to comply with conflict of interest laws known as “Lex Babis”), the EU’s anti-fraud office is concerned that Agrofert controlled a small, anonymously owned company called Stork Nest Farm, which in 2008 received a $2.06 million EU subsidy. The subsidy was meant for small and medium sized companies, which Agrofert is not. Babis denies any wrongdoing.
Having the minister of finance under investigation over financial improprieties reflects poorly on the prime minister. Yet Sobotka said he’s resigning his whole government, and not just dismissing Babis, because he doesn’t want to make his minister of finance a martyr. But there is another reason, too.
“This move needs to be understood in the context of the pre-election campaign,” Jakub Janda of the Prague-based European Values think tank told Foreign Policy.
Czech parliamentary elections are scheduled for late October, and Babis is the country’s most popular politician. Babis’s ANO is currently polling well ahead of Sobotka’s party.
For Sobotka, “this is the last possibility” to draw voters’ attention to issues surrounding Babis,” Filip Horky, a Czech journalist for DVTV, told FP. The elections are less than six months away and CSSD is lagging in the polls. “This is his last chance.”
“The Social Democrats have a huge problem,” said Milan Nic of the German Council on Foreign Relations. ANO is polling at around 30 percent and growing. The Social Democrats are polling at around 12 percent — and has lost roughly 10 percent of its voters to ANO. With this stunt, “they’re aiming at their own voters. The ones they lost to Babis,” Nic told FP in an interview.
But whether Sobotka is able to capitalize on this gamble is not entirely up to him. Czech President Milos Zeman will control what happens next.
Zeman openly admired Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump (Zeman’s first phone call with Trump after the inauguration apparently went better than anyone expected). He is also widely understood to prefer Babis to Sobotka. But Zeman has more of an incentive than just personal preference. Zeman faces his own elections in January. The only politician in the Czech Republic who could run against him and win, according to Nic, is Czech Defense Minister (and former actor) Martin Stropnicky — who, as a member of ANO, answers to Babis. It is possible, Nic said, that some sort of deal could be struck between the president and the potential next prime minister, one in which Stropnicky doesn’t run and the scenario most advantageous to Babis plays out.
What does that mean? It’s unlikely snap elections would be held — that could be too risky with elections looming. And, though Zeman appointed his own caretaker government in 2013, it’s unlikely he’ll do that now (see: elections looming). The likeliest option could be that Zeman simply doesn’t accept the resignation and lets the next five months or so play out on its own. Or he could allow the resignation for Babis alone, leaving the finance minister with free time to campaign, while still painting himself martyred man — exactly what Sobotka was trying to avoid.
Neither scenario is good for Sobotka or his party. In the fight to convince voters Babis is unfit to lead, the Social Democrats “lost this argument long ago,” says Nic.
“But when you’re desperate,” he added, “you do whatever.”
Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images