The Cable

Why Americans Should (Maybe) Worry About Czech Elections

Is Prague about to toss out liberal values? It’s complicated.

Andrej Babis during the parliamentary campaign in Oct. 2017. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
Andrej Babis during the parliamentary campaign in Oct. 2017. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Late next week, Czechs will head to the polls for parliamentary elections and, if things go as expected, will elect as prime minister an embattled tycoon suspected of stealing money from the European Union and of having worked with communist-era secret police.

The political rise of Andrej Babis, an anti-establishment figure who happens to be the second-richest person in the country, has sparked plenty of fears. Some fret that he’ll turn the Czech Republic — and, with it, Central Europe and a chunk of the European Union — over to Moscow and away from Brussels and Washington. Others worry he will lead Prague down the illiberal path of Budapest or Warsaw. But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Babis, still seen as a political outsider after serving three years as finance minister, is the leader of the anti-status quo ANO party, which currently holds 54 seats total in parliament. He’s widely considered pro-business and certainly seems to be pro-Babis businesses: He allegedly pocketed EU subsidies meant for small- and medium-sized firms; on Monday, he was formally charged by Czech police.

He has got other skeletons, too. On Thursday, Slovakia’s Constitutional Court ordered a lower court to look into claims that he collaborated with communist-era secret police. No matter for his political chances: Babis, one might say, could stand under the Charles Bridge and shoot somebody and still be the next Czech prime minister.

But he’s not the bogeyman he’s often made out to be. Babis is not Hungary’s Viktor Orban, seemingly content to fight with Brussels for the rest of his days, or Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, deeply convinced that political opposition forces within Poland are responsible for the death of his twin brother. Even critics concede that Babis is a businessman, not an ideologue. (Although, as Freedom House’s Zselyke Csaky puts it, “We know by now that it’s generally not a good sign if your prime minister wants to run the state as a business.”)

Four big factors will determine the extent to which a Babis victory could turn the Czechs toward Moscow — or at least against liberal society.

The most important will be the choice of coalition partner. For example, if the ANO joins with the Freedom and Direct Democracy party — pals with France’s National Front and led by far-right, nativist, and, somewhat improbably, half-Japanese Tomio Okamura — there could be crackdowns on civil society and skepticism toward the West. If the ANO instead joins with the current ruling party, the centrist Czech Social Democratic Party, the status quo will prevail.

Some opposition parties are using the coalition uncertainty as a campaigning point. Pavel Belobradek, the leader of the center-right Christian and Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party, said in an interview that Czech foreign policy will be dictated by the ANO’s coalition partner. His own party, Belobradek said, is pro-EU, pro-NATO, and democratic. Asked if the ANO is also democratic, Belobradek laughed. “It’s a populist party. It means we don’t know about their values and ideas.”

The second wild card is the Czech presidency, to be decided next January.

The current president, Milos Zeman, makes a lot of friendly noises toward Russia. He recently said to the Council of Europe that Crimea was Russian, a statement denounced by his own ministers. If Zeman wins re-election and Babis and the ANO lead the government, there could perhaps be a move closer to Moscow.

The third factor is how Brussels and Washington respond to Prague under Babis.

On some issues, like immigration, Babis is bound to clash with Brussels. But he’s likely to clash less like Orban, who rails against the European Union, and more like Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who also challenged migration quotas but quietly said he respected the EU court’s decision when it ruled against him. If only for business purposes, Babis likely understands that the future of his country lies in smooth relations with Brussels.

Washington should be an easier sell, especially under President Donald Trump. One Czech diplomatic source told Foreign Policy that “Babis considers himself a partner to the United States in the fight against terror. He also made a clear political commitment to defense spending.”

But foreign policy has never been his main concern. Meanwhile, some Czech diplomats worry that the perception in some American quarters that Babis has sympathy for Moscow could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Repeating these false accusations could strain his future relationship with the U.S. administration, which might have negative impact on Czech-U.S. relations,” the source said.

And the final factor is the resilience of Czech institutions. Will they hold up Western values even as they are under siege across the continent and especially among Prague’s neighbors?

“We will see if institutions such as the media, civil society, or even the parliament are strong enough to withstand attacks,” Csaky said, “or if they’re hollow from within — as is the case in the Czech Republic’s neighbors.”

Photo credit: MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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