- 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.
A week, said former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics. It sure has been for Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.
On May 2, Sobotka tried to tender the resignation of his entire coalition government. It was a purely political play: In polls, his center-left Social Democrats trail the pro-business, anti-establishment ANO party, his coalition partner. ANO was founded and is still headed by Andrej Babis, the finance minister and the country’s second-richest man and, at present, the most popular Czech politician.
Sobotka’s move was a desperate ploy to shine popular attention on Babis’s scandals ahead of parliamentary elections in October. And scandals there are plenty: Babis is currently under investigation by the European Union for fraud, and by Czech authorities for allegedly dodging taxes. And since Sobotka made his move, audio has leaked of Babis trying to influence the media companies he owned until very recently.
Just one problem: the Czech president, Milos Zeman, pulled the rug out from under Sobotka, accepting his resignation and telling the rest of the government they could stay. So then Sobotka then said he would not resign, and asked the president to instead fire Babis.
Zeman, who has his own presidential election coming up in January, has said that he will not fire Babis unless Sobotka tears up the agreement holding the current coalition government together, even though there’s nothing in the Czech constitution saying he can set such conditions. But that does not seem to be stopping Zeman. And leaders of the coalition parties want the coalition to hold together until after October’s elections.
And so thousands took to the streets in Prague and across the country on Wednesday to protest Zeman and Babis. They carried signs saying things like, “Babis is a liar.”
Babis may or may not be a liar, but he is also very likely the next Czech prime minister. Eurasia Group said Monday that it predicts the governmental crisis will not affect Babis’s odds, putting ANO’s chances of October victory are still at around 75 percent, though ANO would still likely need to govern with a coalition.
That would be welcome news for the Trump administration, which may find itself with a bit of a fellow traveller in the heart of Europe.
“Mr. Babis is rather unlikely to rank among those European leaders that would find President Trump’s ‘unconventional’ leadership as disturbing as long as President Trump’s attitude towards the US leadership within NATO will be guaranteed,” said Tomas Nagy of the Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC.
Babis is “definitely illiberal,” said Vladimir Bartovic of the Prague-based EUROPEUM, a think tank. Sobotka, he explained, is a typical western style social democrat who values values. In contrast, “Babis is a technocrat of power.” That doesn’t mean he’d necessarily pull a Viktor Orban and set up an illiberal regime as in Hungary. “But his motivation is to have power, and to preserve it.”
“He has a tendency to build a kind of a ‘cult of leadership’ around himself, he is considerably outspoken — or as he puts it, ‘proudly politically incorrect’, and he has challenged the existing political system of traditional left and right parties,” said Bartovic.
If that doesn’t sound familiar enough, Babis has also “been a prolific critic of how the conventional political parties have handled the European migration crisis and the continuously most delicate matter, state corruption,” Bartovic said.
Czech diplomats aren’t worried about shaking up a bilateral relationship they say is already working fine. Rather, Babis and Trump could get along splendidly.
“On an everyday practical, level we can expect that Mr Babis — with his years of corporate practice — might have tendency to be very transactional, which could work well with the current American administration,” said Czech Ambassador to the United States Hynek Kmonicek.
Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images