Where's Czechia heading? The plot thickens

Where's Czechia heading? The plot thickens
Analysts says Czech President Milos Zeman's bid for re-election this coming January could prove even more vital than Babis's big general election win in deciding Czechia's geopolitical orientation.
By Will Conroy in Prague November 4, 2017

The week gone by did little to clear up the multiplication of known unknowns that leave analysts scratching their heads as to what kind of government the Czech Republic (or “Czechia” if we stick with the new official international name) can expect under populist billionaire Andrej Babis and his anti-establishment Ano (“Yes”) movement.

With a coalition seemingly ruled out for now given the stubborn resistance of potential partners—who are refusing to be political bedfellows of a prime minister under investigation for an alleged EU subsidy fraud—the anti-politician Babis has won Czech President Milos Zeman's endorsement for at least two attempts at forming a minority administration. But it's the cosy alliance developing between Kremlin-friendly Zeman and Babis—an incoming prime minister who has a big hole where his foreign policy should be—that has many observers on edge.

Geopolitical orientation may hinge on presidential election
The coming January presidential contest, in which the 73-year-old Zeman will run for a second term of office, could prove even more vital to Czechia's eastward or westward orientation than the late October general election that brought an Ano landslide.

Zeman has proved a severe embarrassment to the outgoing Social Democrat-led government, spouting Moscow's line at every turn, contradicting standpoints of the Czech foreign ministry. Whether you see him as one of Russia's useful idiots or as a rather more sophisticated fellow, there is no doubt that the Kremlin is thrilled to have him on board. As Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, has it in Controlling Chaos: How Russia manages its political war in Europe, a report compiled for the European Council on Foreign Relations: “President Milos Zeman’s outspoken criticisms of Nato and the EU are gleefully repeated in Moscow’s propaganda campaigns throughout central Europe.”

Despised by Prague's “coffeehouse intellectuals” but often cheered to the rafters out in the provinces, as president, Zeman—a populist like Babis but coarser in his conduct—should constitutionally remain a ceremonial figure. Traditionally, however, the Czech president projects a heavy informal influence. Jakub Janda, deputy director of European Values, a Czech think tank, where he also runs the Kremlin Watch Programme, picks up on this point in an October 30 piece published by EUobserver prior to Babis's announcement that he is going for a minority government. “With Babis struggling to put together a coalition, the deal-breaker for the Czech Republic is if Zeman gets re-elected,” writes Janda. “If so, he would probably divide spheres of influence with Babis and take over Czech foreign policy. Czech politics has seen this before. Between 1998 and 2002, the two strongest political powers agreed on a division of influence without attacking each other—a deal which effectively crippled Czech democracy for several years.”

Adds Janda: “If Zeman were to lose to a pro-Atlantic challenger, it would probably moderate Babis on foreign and security policy. The real decision on where Prague will turn will come in January next year.”

That line of thought was given added weight on October 3 when Czech daily Hospodarske noviny reported Petr Fiala, leader of the centre-right and Atlanticist Civic Democrats (ODS), who came second in the election to win 25 of the lower house's 200 seats compared to Ano's 78, as saying no-one was even trying for a coalition and that Babis and Zeman have a power deal. He admitted that ODS would not even meet with Babis—also facing a second court fight in his country of birth Slovakia to clear his name of claims that he was an agent of the Czechoslovak-era Communist secret police (StB) while working as a top foreign trade official—but the implication was clear. The answer to the riddle of the next Czech government may well be sat in the Castle.

Custodians of a fragile democracy
So what of the hypothesis that a combination of Babis and Zeman as custodians of a fragile democracy could pose a grave danger? Six civil society groups that say the republic of 10.6mn should take no chances are planning a “Freedom Festival” on the November 17 national holiday that in part commemorates the start of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. In a wake-up call, they will urge those who gather to confront populism, extremism and disinformation (the fact that Babis is the owner of many Czech media outlets, including two of the country's handful of serious tabloids, is one worry for democracy activists).

November 1 brought an interesting development when Chief Justice Pavel Rychetsky of the Constitutional Court told Hospodarske noviny that he imagines that one of the “democratic parties” will realise that a one-party minority government—possibly backed by the Communists (15 MPs) from the wings, given that they are the only party so far to have indicated that they have no problem tolerating a minority administration—will not be good for democracy and will dutifully attempt to make a coalition.

There is anxiety in circulation that Babis, a single-minded business brain who, having little time for politicians has mused that he might be minded to abolish the Senate and cut the number of MPs by half, will resort to illiberal, authoritarian but 'efficient' tendencies. Rychetsky reportedly also said that the Senate and the Constitution itself are safeguards against fundamental changes to the Constitution. Article 9, he pointed out, forbade any alterations to the “fundamental facets of the democratic, rule-of-law state” and it is down to the Constitutional Court to interpret this.

Get set for a technocratic cabinet
An intriguing prospect is that Babis will pack his cabinet with experts and present a technocratic government that will, at least initially, win plenty of public acclaim. “A so-called government of experts has always been popular in this country,” Josef Mlejnek, a political scientist at Charles University in Prague, told Bloomberg on November 2. This, he added, “could put pressure on the other political parties to support it because they will feel that if they don’t, public opinion will turn even more against them”.

Babis this week turned to Facebook in his search for experts who could take over the trade and industry, education and defence ministries. Having already had several refusals from prominent figures such as university rectors, civil servants and military men, Babis conceded he would not be able to form a cabinet at his first attempt, but remained optimistic a suitable line-up was within reach.

One test of his management skills will be how he goes about ensuring the obedience and unity of Ano members involved on the municipal, regional and national levels given that he now has twice as many MPs to oversee. The task could prove cumbersome, political analyst Jiri Pehe told Pravo daily, observing that despite his sweeping win in the election it will be far from easy for Babis to become the “saviour” of Czech society and politics.

No EU or foreign policy team
In his election day victory speech at Ano's headquarters, agrochemicals and foodstuffs entrepreneur Babis said he was puzzled at how anybody could “label us as a threat to democracy”. Czech citizens had rejected “the disinformation campaign against us... a democratic movement [that is] pro-European and pro-Nato...” he added. Pro-European? Maybe so, but certainly not with any gusto.

Since entering politics, Babis, in contrast to his sometimes obsessive pursuit of certain domestic issues, hasn't truly built a foreign policy or EU team in his party. What's more his undiluted opposition to European migrant quotas as well as his euroscepticism, in a country that is decidedly unconvinced by Brussels and plumb against adopting the euro, delivered tonnes of votes. It is clear Babis is not for 'more Europe' from federalisation and will be quick to oppose anything he regards as EU over-reach, but as for a deeper, coherent ideology on where Czechia should stand in the bloc, he has none—or hasn't expressed it if he does.

This limp endorsement of the nation's EU membership could be decisive when it comes to decisions that will or won't open the way to a Czexit. Zeman, crucially, wants a referendum. Though also claiming to be in the Remain camp, the president in true populist style says the matter is far too important to simply leave to the politicians.

To open the way to such a momentous vote, a referendum law will first have to be passed by parliament. On this point, Babis this week told Czech newspapers that the country needs a referendum law but only with a guarantee that the decision-making it would introduce can not be exposed to manipulation. The Pirate Party (22 MPs), meanwhile, though very pro-EU in their appeal to the younger generations, stood on a platform calling for elements of direct democracy such as referenda, so if Ano introduces referendum legislation it seems certain that the votes will be there. Pundits may then only feel more confident that the Czechs will vote to stick with the EU should a wheel come off the UK's Brexit process.

Clear as mud
The journey that Czechia is about to embark upon is as clear as mud. But for those determined to see the way ahead there were a couple of other tantalising clues to factor in this week.

European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Ano member Vera Jourova, stepped into the EU membership debate stating that Babis is certainly not anti-European but had adopted positions on the election trail that he thought voters wanted to hear. Advocating a policy in which Czechia would state firmly that it wanted to eventually adopt the euro, she said it would be important for the country to get as near as possible to the EU mainstream.

Also in the news was Martin Stropnicky, a popular actor who since 2014 has served as defence minister and has helped to put a human face on Ano and Babis. Some analysts see Stropnicky as an unyielding advocate of Euro-Atlantic ties and a passionate opponent of nefarious activities of the Kremlin, but to others he comes across, politically, as rather bland. Various commentators had him pencilled in to be foreign minister in the new government but on November 2 Babis informed Lidove noviny daily (one of his titles) that Stropnicky might instead be made culture minister.

And for that all important foreign minister's portfolio? The latest betting was on Hynek Kmonicek, current Czech ambassador to Washington—and foreign policy adviser to Zeman.