Analysis

Will Andrej Babis Rise Again?

Pandora Papers revelations aren’t likely to doom the billionaire Czech prime minister in this week’s elections.

By , a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague.
A man stands by a campaign poster for Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
A man stands by a campaign poster for Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis in Brno, Czech Republic, on Oct. 1. Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s poor management of the coronavirus pandemic saw his ANO party sink in the polls this spring, prompting him to launch a populist broadside against his rivals. On Monday, days ahead of legislative elections, the billionaire businessman was one of several world leaders named in the Pandora Papers, which revealed he purchased a French mansion through secretive offshore financing. The ANO party nonetheless remains the front-runner ahead of the vote on Friday and Saturday in the Czech Republic.

Bankrolled by Babis’s billions, the centrist ANO party took 29.6 percent of the vote in the 2017 elections after jumping on the global anti-establishment bandwagon with a pledge to oust a crooked political class from government. Babis has since governed at the head of a minority coalition, supported by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Taking their cue from others in the region struggling against strongmen, five Czech parties formed a pair of coalitions—labeled the democratic bloc—to counter Babis’s power in late 2020.

Polls show the ANO party has a four-point lead over the opposition going into the elections. The democratic bloc has struggled to respond to the populists’ campaigning and disinformation, but their warnings that Babis threatens Czech democracy still have the ear of around half of voters. The results of the tight race, which will likely be clear late Saturday, could have ramifications beyond the Czech Republic’s borders in the long term, with its geopolitical orientation hanging in the balance.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s poor management of the coronavirus pandemic saw his ANO party sink in the polls this spring, prompting him to launch a populist broadside against his rivals. On Monday, days ahead of legislative elections, the billionaire businessman was one of several world leaders named in the Pandora Papers, which revealed he purchased a French mansion through secretive offshore financing. The ANO party nonetheless remains the front-runner ahead of the vote on Friday and Saturday in the Czech Republic.

Bankrolled by Babis’s billions, the centrist ANO party took 29.6 percent of the vote in the 2017 elections after jumping on the global anti-establishment bandwagon with a pledge to oust a crooked political class from government. Babis has since governed at the head of a minority coalition, supported by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. Taking their cue from others in the region struggling against strongmen, five Czech parties formed a pair of coalitions—labeled the democratic bloc—to counter Babis’s power in late 2020.

Polls show the ANO party has a four-point lead over the opposition going into the elections. The democratic bloc has struggled to respond to the populists’ campaigning and disinformation, but their warnings that Babis threatens Czech democracy still have the ear of around half of voters. The results of the tight race, which will likely be clear late Saturday, could have ramifications beyond the Czech Republic’s borders in the long term, with its geopolitical orientation hanging in the balance.

Earlier this year, it seemed like the pandemic would boost the democratic bloc’s efforts against Babis. As the Czech Republic’s death toll climbed past 30,000 cases—the world’s sixth highest per capita—the public reacted with horror. In May, the liberal Pirates and Mayors coalition opened up an eight-point lead as the ANO party’s support floundered. Meanwhile, the center-right SPOLU coalition moved one point ahead of the ruling party.

But as the threat of COVID-19 receded in the Czech Republic, the prime minister doubled down on his populist playbook. Founded as a fiscally conservative party in 2011, the ANO now draws its core support from older and rural voters. Babis has promised higher pensions and public service wages, extending the largesse that has become a key plank in the party’s success. But he quickly realized the carrot alone wouldn’t be enough. As elections approach, Babis has traded in fearmongering and relied on populist tropes to attack his rivals.

Babis has traded in fearmongering and relied on populist tropes to attack his rivals.

The ANO party’s campaign has invoked boogeymen and disinformation to boost itself in the polls. Seeking to recall the panic of the 2015 European migrant crisis, Babis has said the opposition wants to force Czechs to host refugees in their homes, despite the fact that few refugees seek sanctuary in the country. The party has also targeted the European Union, promising not to “let anyone dictate who we accept into our territory,” despite knowing the bloc is working on a new migration strategy that does not contain such a mechanism.

Since the Pirates and Mayors coalition took its surprise lead in the spring, the ANO party has reserved its fiercest contempt for the Czech Pirate Party, bombarding voters with warnings that it is filled with Marxists who plan to flood the country with migrants and drugs and cede control to Brussels. This simplistic disinformation strategy appears to have worked: Concerns about what party leader Ivan Bartos, a software engineer, would do with the levers of power have gained traction among voters.

The opposition has struggled to defend itself against the populists’ assault. Many of the attacks on the democratic bloc and its politicians spread on alternative media websites and through personal networks, according to Vit Havelka, an analyst at Europeum Institute for European Policy, a Prague-based think tank. “This makes the disinformation very tough to fight, especially if you’re not giving easy answers,” Havelka said.

The opposition certainly has ammunition against Babis. The prime minister’s alleged conflict of interest regarding EU subsidies paid to his conglomerate Agrofert—from which he transferred his holdings into trust funds—leaves criminal charges hanging over his head. Brussels has threatened to withhold billions of euros in funding to the Czech Republic. Yet the democratic bloc has struggled to land punches. When Babis’s son recently repeated accusations that his father arranged for his kidnapping to prevent him from speaking with police in 2018, ANO party support barely flickered. Likewise, few observers expect the Pandora Papers’ revelations about Babis to have much of an impact on the elections.

As a result, Czech media outlets and analysts have criticized the democratic bloc’s response to Babis’s campaigning and the ANO party’s rebound as weak despite the challenges posed by disinformation. “The pandemic was six months ago, and people have moved on somewhat,” said Lubomir Kopecek, a political scientist at Masaryk University. “But the mistakes of the opposition are also important.”

Babis’s work is not yet done. Although the ANO party appears set to win the most votes on Friday and Saturday, the democratic bloc still has a chance to seal a majority in parliament with between 43 and 45 percent of the vote. The prime minister is likely to struggle to form a governing coalition, especially if he rejects cooperation with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party, as he did in 2017. “Cooperation with the extreme parties is very unpleasant for Babis because it threatens his image in the EU as well as at home,” Kopecek said.

But Babis has an ace up his sleeve. Czech President Milos Zeman, who sealed a power pact with the prime minister four years ago, said he plans to use his power to nominate a government that would keep the billionaire in the prime minister’s chair. Although the Czech presidency is largely ceremonial, the head of state does have the formal role of appointing governments after elections. Zeman, whose second and final term ends in 2023, has long tested the constitution as he seeks influence over government policy, and he senses an opportunity in Babis’s legal troubles and the ANO party’s recent weakness.

Zeman favors closer links with Russia and China, which has stoked opposition claims that Babis represents a threat to the Czech Republic’s geopolitical orientation. However, in his four years in power, Babis has shown surprising resilience in resisting the president’s push toward the East. Under the current government, Russian and Chinese firms have been ousted from state contracts and diplomats expelled en masse, which has some analysts suggesting a Babis victory wouldn’t be the disaster for democracy his opponents claim.

Havelka said the Czech Republic’s voting record in the European Council tallies with that of Western peers, unlike Hungary or Poland’s populist governments—showing Babis remains in the European mainstream. “Babis plays the populist card to the nationalist electorate at home, but that’s better than leaving this cohort to those on the far right,” he said. “Does it matter that he’s a populist if the Czech Republic behaves properly on the international stage?”

Ultimately, Babis could be the lesser threat. Under the Czech constitution, the president gets two opportunities to install a government after elections. If Babis refuses to toe the line on building ties with the East, Zeman may replace him with a member of his inner circle. A different prime minister, armed with a stronger ideological zeal for populist nationalism, could pose a greater threat to the democratic system and the Czech Republic’s geopolitical orientation. Seeing Babis’s reelection as the worst thing that could happen to the Czech Republic may just show a lack of imagination.

Tim Gosling is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Prague, covering Central and Eastern Europe. Twitter: @TGosCEE

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