INTERVIEW: Babis slams coalition partners, but Czech govt seems safe for now

By bne IntelliNews November 10, 2015

Benjamin Cunningham in Prague -

Even as the Czech governing coalition remains in place and broadly popular, tensions between Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babis remain at a slow boil. In an interview with bne IntelliNews, Babis labels the government inefficient and highlights persistent internal political rivalries – but he also shows little sign of plans to bring it down anytime soon.  

Babis is the country’s second richest man and his newly formed ANO party finished a strong second in the October 2013 election. The resulting coalition saw Sobotka’s winning Social Democrats (CSSD) and the socially conservative Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) join with ANO in a coalition. The combination of two establishment parties with a personality-driven party espousing anti-politics seemed an unlikely one, but has proven surprisingly stable in a country that saw four prime ministers in the previous four years. 

To hear Babis speak, though, the arrangement is an utter disaster. “I am working more than before, but the performance is 50 times less,” Babis says. “I can’t manage my own time. I am sitting in parliament listening to stupidities of corrupt people.”

In keeping with the apolitical branding, Babis insists that today's professional politicians are unfit for governing, and disparages Sobotka as having “never been in the real world”. Babis also shows particular contempt for Interior Minister Milan Chovanec (CSSD), whom he accuses of using the Ministry of Interior’s control of state businesses to reward his party allies. Babis produced minutes – conveniently waiting just steps away on a table – from a May supervisory board meeting for Ceska Posta, the state postal service, in which members voted to keep future decision-making about contracts secret. “The minister of finance cannot get any information about tenders within Ceska Posta,” Babis complains.   

After spending several minutes condemning turf battles, the give and take of coalition politics, and his governing partners, Babis nonetheless balks at the idea of bringing the government down. “The only value is that I meet normal people and they encourage me to continue,” he says.

Much of the Czech political establishment remains alarmed of Babis. His personal wealth, ownership of key media like the daily newspapers Lidove Noviny and Mlada Fronta Dnes, and extensive business holdings in the agricultural and chemical sectors saw Sobotka, among others, note that Babis’ power in the Czech Republic is “unprecedented since 1989” and that it represents “a permanent risk of a conflict of interest”.

For his part, Babis insists that the country needs a new kind of politics, one stocked with professional managerial types that make decisions based on rational calculation. In his mind, political convictions are a fiction that waste time. The upshot of this thinking is that his coalition partners have sought to portray the finance minister as anti-democratic. Pavel Belobradek, the KDU-CSL head, said on a television talk show in October when confronted with comments by Babis that, “Democracy hinders [the pace of work], but it is essential that democracy in its entirety be defended.”

Equal opportunity graft

Still, Babis’ insistence that government should be run like a business, along with frequent condemnations of decades of corrupt post-communist politics, resonates with many people. Graft remains both a real and perceived problem; a recent poll by the CVVM agency found that 20% of Czechs consider bribes a common practice for easing interaction with a state institution. 

At the same time, Babis’ own party has not been scandal free in recent weeks. Radmila Kleslova, chairwoman of ANO’s Prague branch and deputy chief of the party at large, recently resigned in the wake of controversy surrounding her continued ties to national power company CEZ. A long-time lobbyist and a former member of the communist-era secret police, the StB, Kleslova remains the mayor of Prague’s 10th district. (In fact, Babis has a penchant for surrounding himself with former police and spooks, as bne IntelliNews has reported.)

Kleslova had long been perceived as a sort of éminence grise of Prague City Hall, where ANO’s Adriana Krnacova sits as mayor.  While Babis admits that Kleslova “made a mistake”, he goes on to note that “she resigned” and argues that once wrongdoing became apparent, his party dealt with the issue quickly. He contrasts that with how Sobotka’s CSSD has handled still burgeoning scandals in regional metropoles like Ostrava and Olomouc. “[Sobotka] needs the support of these regional organisations to be the chief of the party,” Babis says. “Me, I don’t care.”

On substantive domestic policy issues, Babis is largely noncommittal. Though earlier critical of the Czech National Bank’s weak crown policy – which has seen the central bank intervene to keep the currency pegged at roughly CZK27 to the euro – Babis now seems unwilling to criticise the bank directly. “There is less pressure on efficiency of companies, but for the people it is negative,” he says. “It has had a good impact on the economic performance of the Czech Republic.”

Much like the weak crown policy, the government looks set to stay in place into 2016. But as the country’s most popular politician, Babis holds most of the cards on determining for how long. ANO holds about an 8-point advantage over the CSSD in recent opinion polls, but with just 28% of the total, a similar coalition would likely emerge from an early election held today. 

When that changes, so might the government. 

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