Babis pledges to continue fighting after election defeat

Babis pledges to continue fighting after election defeat
Andrej Babis back in winning days. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera January 30, 2023

Petr Pavel's decisive victory in the Czech presidential race, where he registered 58.3% of the vote in the runoff against opposition leader Andrej Babis, has raised questions over the populist billionaire’s political future and that of his political vehicle, the ANO party, which he founded in 2011 and of which he is the undisputed leader.  

But Babis and his top lieutenants at ANO – which has not won a clear victory since the parliamentary elections in 2017 – have been quick to reject charges that the party and its leader were on the way out.

After his defeat Babis called on his voters “to give the same amount of votes to ANO at the parliamentary elections in 2025”. He added that ANO, which he refers to as a “movement” of disenfranchised citizens, “is the only one [political subject] which helps people and is here for them. And you can count on me. I will keep on helping you,” he said.

Babis’ words were echoed by Radek Vondracek, one of ANO’s deputy chairmen in a discussion on Czech Radio. Vondracek called Babis’ support from 2.4mn voters, 41.3% of the electorate , “motivating” and an “election potential”. If achieved in parliamentary elections in 2025 “it would mean a wholly different position of ANO in the Chamber of Deputies”, where it is already by far the strongest political formation with 72 deputies.   

Patrik Nacher, who led ANO to a vote of nearly 20% in last year's municipal elections in Prague, where it is usually weak, posted that “from the mid-term perspective we now have honest work of the parliamentary opposition ahead of us”. Moreover, “from the long-term perspective,” he sees the job “to increase coalition potential” as the “main task for ANO”. 

There are several combinations that could be on Nacher’s mind in terms of increasing coalition potential. There could be the much-feared alliance of ANO with the far-right SPD party, whose leaders did not openly back Babis in the race, but whose electorate seems to have largely done so, perhaps attracted by Babis making “peace” in Ukraine and negotiations with the Kremlin one of his central messages.

Another combination could be continued flirting with the neoliberal ODS of Prime Minister Petr Fiala, which would break-up the SPOLU bloc of three centre-right parties. This is something Nacher has already tried in Prague with a plan to build a new city government with SPOLU, though the attempt eventually failed.  The two parties also backed Babis’ controversial tax reform in late 2020 that largely benefited high earners and weakened public finances.

The role of the war in Ukraine proved to have been one of the most important aspects of the election campaign. As Yurii Panchenko, a co-editor of European Pravda, a news outlet focusing on the European integration of Ukraine, observed,  “the current elections in the Czech Republic have become essentially a referendum on the foreign policy of the country. And the vast majority of voters voted for continuing support for Ukraine.”

The elections can also be seen more generally as a referendum on the position of Czechia towards the EU and Nato. In this sense, Babis’ aggressive strategy of painting Pavel as a “warmonger” backfired and actually strengthened the former general, who was backed by a much more diverse electorate than Babis, including not just centre-right and liberal voters, but also ANO voters and those who voted for parties that didn’t make it past the 5% threshold to enter parliament.

However, as Vondracek dryly observed, the election also outlined the potential of ANO in parliamentary politics, as Babis managed to attract a more radical electorate from SPD ranks. If ANO repeated such a feat before the parliamentary elections in 2025, consolidating the far-right electorate with its more centrist or centre-left voters, this could make it a clear favourite.