The Czech Republic’s general election on 20-21 October is a “now or never” moment for the country, according to its second-richest man, Andrej Babiš. But for the agrochemical tycoon-turned-populist tribune, it is even more than that. Unless his party Ano (“Yes” in Czech) wins convincingly, as opinion polls indicate it will, Babiš could be put on trial to face fraud charges.
That such an unlikely and flawed candidate is on course to become the next prime minister is an indication of how weary Czechs are of their conventional politicians.
The richest of the central European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and the state with the deepest democratic roots, the Czech Republic had largely resisted the populism coursing through the region, especially in Hungary and Poland. Yet Czechs have long been discontented with the corruption of their post-communist elite. They have also become increasingly frustrated by the continuing gap with the living standards enjoyed by western Europe and disenchanted with the European Union, mainly because of the migration crisis.
“The problem is that people across society have lost their future. They have no vision now [as part of the EU],” says Jan Hartl, the chairman of the Czech polling agency Stem.
Though he has a folksy manner and likes to attack the political class, Babiš, 63, has benefited from his close links with the establishment. Born into an elite Slovak communist family, he was privately educated in Switzerland and joined the party and worked abroad as a fertiliser trader until the 1989 Velvet Revolution. The National Memory Institute in Slovakia, which holds the communist-era secret police files, has alleged that Babiš was also a party agent, though he is challenging this in court.
In the “Wild East” of the early 1990s, Babiš seized control of Agrofert using opaque funding from his Swiss “schoolmates” (as he later described them). He built it into the country’s largest privately held group by buying up other state chemical companies.
Agrofert, which employs 34,000 people, now dominates Czech farming, food production and agrochemicals, and it has enabled Babiš to amass a personal fortune of $4bn. The company’s presence is so pervasive that opponents have set up a “Without Andrej” app to help shoppers shun his dairy and meat products.
In 2011, Babiš entered politics in order, in his words, to kill the “corruption hydra”. (Ano was originally an acronym for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens”.) He won immediate success, helped by savvy PR (he has more Twitter followers than all the other party leaders combined) and positive coverage from the newspaper and radio empire he acquired.
His pitch – that he is a workaholic manager who is so rich that he doesn’t need to steal – was convincing enough to propel Ano to second place in the 2013 legislative election. The party joined a coalition led by the Social Democrats and Babiš was appointed finance minister.
Four years later, Ano has kept the image of a protest movement, while Babiš can claim credit for the country’s robust economic growth – forecast to be 3.1 per cent this year – and balanced budget.
Babiš ticks many of the right-wing populist boxes: he rails against Brussels, does not want the Czech Republic to accept refugees and criticises sanctions on Russia. He portrays himself on election billboards strangling the old political elite, and he is impatient of democratic constraints (and has abolished them within his party). “He doesn’t understand the role of parliament,” says the political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova. “He doesn’t understand how it is connected to democracy.”
Yet there are also crucial differences. He is not against globalisation, he does not resort to fear-mongering or crude nationalism and he is socially liberal. Babiš is more of a centrist or technocratic populist, promising to cut red tape and professionally manage the country, which he has called “an indebted firm run by incompetent managers who steal”. His pragmatic approach appeals to far more than just globalisation’s losers, and he has placed his party within the liberal Alde group in the European Parliament.
As the election front-runner, Babiš has come under fire this year over how he has allegedly used his political and media power to benefit Agrofert. Critics accuse him of being behind government policies that have made Agrofert the country’s biggest corporate beneficiary of EU subsidies. The Social Democratic prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, forced Babiš in January to put his empire into a trust, and then sacked him in May over Agrofert’s use of a loophole to issue £52m of tax-free bonds, which Babiš then bought up, cutting his tax bill.
More damagingly, police earlier this month charged Babiš with fraud for claiming EU subsidies designed for small companies, an allegation that is also being probed by the EU’s anti-corruption office, Olaf. Babiš claims that all of this is politically motivated.
Politicians from the other main political parties have said that they could not form a government under a man facing criminal charges, but their resistance – and the charges – are likely to melt away if Babiš wins convincingly. That still seems probable, with the latest polls showing Ano winning 27 per cent of the vote, double the tally of the Social Democrats.
“He [Babiš] is attacked so much by everyone that people think he should have a fair chance to do what he says he will do,” says Jan Machacek, the chairman of Ano’s think tank.
The risk, critics warn, is that Prime Minister Babiš could entrench the influence of business oligarchs, and his accumulation of powers could strain the country’s relatively untested checks and balances. “The main danger is the fusion of political and economic power, coupled with a sense that you don’t need politicians,” says Sean Hanley, a lecturer in eastern European politics at UCL.
So far, many Czechs seem unconcerned, perhaps believing that, as with the US’s General Motors, what is good for Agrofert must be good for the Czech Republic.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions