Social Democrats give Babis hope of becoming Czech PM

Social Democrats give Babis hope of becoming Czech PM
New CSSD leader Jan Hamacek meets American Czechs in traditional folk costumes.
By Robert Anderson in Prague February 19, 2018

Billionaire Czech populist Andrej Babis appears to be in a stronger position to win a working parliamentary majority after the election of a new Social Democrat leader who favours an alliance.

Jan Hamacek, formerly the parliamentary speaker, was elected leader after winning a run-off against former South Bohemia Governor Jan Zimola by 272 votes to 224 at the CSSD party congress at the weekend. Former interior minister Milan Chovanec, who is against working with Babis, was eliminated after securing only 116 votes. Zimola, a close ally of former CSSD leader President Milos Zeman, who also favours an ANO-CSSD coalition, was elected first vice-president of the party.

Babis has failed to win a parliamentary vote of confidence, despite taking 78 seats out of 200 in October’s general election, because all the mainstream parties have refused to accept him as premier while fraud charges are hanging over him. Only the hardline Communist KSCM, which has 15 seats, has offered to tolerate his government by walking out of the chamber during votes.

If Babis can also persuade the Social Democrats, who also have 15 seats, to join him in government, his Ano party would have a narrow majority of 93 out of the 185 remaining voting deputies in the chamber. Babis may also win at least the toleration of the neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) of Tomio Okamura, which has 22 seats.

The small centre-right Stan party, which has six seats, has also recently changed its mind about negotiating with the agrochemical tycoon, in another sign that the united front against him is beginning to fracture because of the threat of an Ano government backed by the hard right and hard left. Nevertheless Stan still says it will not accept a suspected criminal as premier.

"In our effort to prevent the SPD and the KSCM from participating in the government, we will launch the negotiations in which we were previously rejected by Ano," leader Jan Farsky said last week.

The CSSD led the previous government but suffered a debacle in the October elections, losing two-thirds of its deputies. The party is now split between those such as Chovanec who want to rebuild in opposition, and those such as Hamacek and Zimola who believe it can best defend its position by remaining in government. CSSD and Ano were in government together until December.

Most of all, CSSD fears early elections, which could erode its formerly dominant position even further. A Stem opinion poll last week put it in sixth place with 7.1% support, down from 7.3% at the election. Ano was on 32.5%, up from 29.6% at the election, but because two small centre-right parties, Stan and TOP 09, are now in danger of falling below the 5% threshold, it could win an absolute majority.

Hamacek, 39, is a smooth professional politician who speaks several languages and specialises in international affairs. He chaired the parliamentary foreign affairs committee in the past. Seen as a centrist, between the liberal and traditional wings of the party, he argues that Babis should not be premier but that this might be a better option if the only alternative were early elections.

The party congress mandated the new leader and his deputy to renew negotiations with Babis but also passed a resolution declaring that his fraud charges remain a fundamental problem. "The CSSD considers the participation of prosecuted persons in the government as a major problem and calls on Ano not to nominate the prosecuted or accused persons," the resolution says.

Ano, which is largely Babis’ personal vehicle, has refused to consider nominating an alternative premier. Babis, who has also been named as a former agent of the Czechoslovak secret police, has denied any wrongdoing.

The CSSD resolution does not absolutely rule out a government under Babis – a stronger resolution did not gain support – but any deal with Babis will have to go before the party’s full membership for a vote.

The party also declared that the government must not rely on the neo-fascist SPD. "A government with the support or participation of the CSSD must not rely on the votes of the SDP," the party said in its final resolution.

Alternatively, the CSSD might agree to tolerate a minority Ano government, perhaps staying out of the cabinet and appointing only deputy ministers, as President Zeman has recommended. The president, who is thought to have preferred the traditionalist Zimola as leader, has been strongly backing a Babis minority government and has given him as long as he needs to win a vote of confidence.

Babis himself now backs this option as his favourite. This scenario would allow him to dominate the government and play off the other parties against each other. The tycoon is already behaving as if he has won the right to rule, dismissing senior bureaucrats and heads of government agencies even though he is only acting premier.

Babis commented after the CSSD conference: “We will enter into talks with the Social Democrats and it will be up to them to state the conditions under which they would tolerate our government or be part of it. We are offering them a place in the government, but we will have to see if the conditions are right. The Mayors and Independents party [Stan] has also opened the door to negotiations and we will talk with whomever is willing to negotiate.”