Police are now free to bring fraud charges against populist politician Andrej Babis - the billionaire that polls show is still the favourite to become Czechia’s next prime minister in the upcoming October election - after a September 6 123-to-four vote in parliament to withdraw his immunity from prosecution.
Prior to the overwhelming vote to in this instance lift the protection from criminal charges granted to an MP, Babis, the 63-year-old founder of the ANO movement, declared to lawmakers in the lower house: "You will not silence me, intimidate me, stop me. And you will not get rid of me." Babis, who insists the controversy is a pre-election ploy driven by his political and business enemies, even ended up backing the motion himself, saying: "So, give me up. I ask you to lift my immunity so that the truth can be revealed."
Ex-finance minister Babis’s role in an alleged €2mn fraud is under police scrutiny, as is that of ANO deputy leader Jaroslav Faltynek, whose immunity was also lifted by the vote. EU anti-fraud office OLAF has also been investigating the claimed corruption in which a farm and conference centre near Prague known as Stork’s Nest received an EU subsidy in 2008 after its ownership was transferred from the Babis-owned Agrofert conglomerate to Babis family members. The subsidy was meant for a small or medium sized business. If Stork’s Nest had remained part of Agrofert, it would not have been eligible to receive it. Some time after the aid was awarded, Agrofert retook ownership of the business.
In response to Babis’s plea of innocence and attacks on his opponents in the parliamentary debate, leading Social Democrat (CSSD) candidate and Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek accused Babis of "moaning" - reported Deutsche Welle citing news agencies - while opposition conservative and ex-finance minister Miroslav Kalousek teased: "None of us acquired 50 million [Czech] crowns that were intended for small enterprises."
The big question now of course is by how much might the affair dent Babis and ANO’s support among voters in the run-up to the October 20-21 election. So far, a winning percentage seem to have remained blasé about Babis’s financial affairs. The latest opinion polls show centrist ANO, currently part of a grand coalition in the CSSD-led government, dominating the political scene with a double-digit lead among likely voters. But no major surveys have been conducted since the police requested the removal of Babis’s immunity on August 10.
Slovak-born Babis, who earlier this year was fired as finance minister over unexplained business dealings and is frequently attacked by his adversaries for having authoritarian instincts, may be faced with having to try and put together a ruling coalition with parties who presently say they could not work with a prime minister charged with a crime. Of course, if he wins re-election as an MP, Babis will regain his immunity and the police would have to again ask parliament to lift it.
Sometimes dubbed the ‘Czech Berlusconi’, the agro-chemicals entrepreneur-turned-politician on September 2 launched his ANO party’s general election campaign platform with an emphasis on fighting entrenched corruption. His party has pledged to cleanse politics of graft but critics say Babis, whose ANO conglomerate encompasses some 250 companies and is the biggest Czech private employer with more than 30,000 staff, could never have got rich in the way he did in the first place if the environment he now says he will dismantle had not existed.
“He might want to explain…”
Prior to the vote in parliament, political analyst Jiri Pehe wrote in daily Pravo that if ANO is pledging an anti-corruption revolution, Babis might want to explain how it was that he ever took over Agrofert and became Czechia’s second-richest person given that the “corruption hydra” he refers to must have been trying persistently to pull him down. Pehe also warned that almost all authoritarian leaders have historically come to power by using the kind of revolutionary language Babis deploys.
ANO is a Eurosceptic party and there are fears that a Babis-led government might shift Czechia towards isolation. Of the four Visegrad countries, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have already elected populist governments. Analysts fear that in the longer run an entirely populist Central Europe, with governments playing to the gallery, would damage economic growth.
The Czech Republic, a country of 10.5mn people, was once seen as an island of stability and moderation in Central Europe. Now, with growing voter volatility and the looming collapse of the centre-left CSSD, its last strong traditional party, it looks as if will join its neighbours in embracing populism and picking fights with Brussels. That poses grave risks for its democracy and European unity.
“We face destruction of the whole party system,” Jiri Dienstbier, a former Social Democrat human rights minister, told bne IntelliNews earlier this year. “The CSSD is now at breaking point. The next general election will decide whether it will survive as a mainstream party.”