VISEGRAD: Babis's grip on the Czech crown is still not secure

VISEGRAD: Babis's grip on the Czech crown is still not secure
Babis at a meeting of the Visegrad Four countries on December 14 prior to the European Council meeting.
By Robert Anderson in Prague December 19, 2017

Andrej Babis, the billionaire populist who won October’s Czech general election, was crowned and garlanded at home and abroad last week as his cabinet was sworn in and he attended his first European Union summit. And yet his position remains precarious, and it is still very unclear whether he will be able to secure a working parliamentary majority to push through his programme.

The mainstream opposition parties remain firm in their demand that the agro-chemicals tycoon put forward an alternative prime minister because he is under investigation for EU subsidy fraud, but he has so far refused to retreat to play the same behind the scenes role as Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Over the next few months Babis will try to win the support of some of the mainstream parties to join his government, but they remain wary because of the ruthlessly effective way he stole voters away from the Social Democrats (CSSD) during his four-year coalition with them.

“His strategy in the past four years was very simple,” says Jan Mladek, the former Social Democrat industry minister. “He was claiming all the successes for himself and stealing the results.” Mladek had told bne IntelliNews before the election that the Social Democrats’ result would be between “bad and catastrophic”; afterwards he texted that “the blow is even bigger than I had expected”.

Babis’ Ano party, which has 78 seats in the 200-member lower house, looks likely to win the toleration of the hardline Communist party, which has 15 seats, and Tomio Okamura’s neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD), which has 22 seats. Babis has helped them win the chairmanships of key parliamentary committees and has offered to listen to their policy suggestions.

Closer collaboration with the two extremist parties – such as giving them cabinet seats or signing formal agreements for their future support – would forever taint his government, both at home and abroad. But both parties will probably walk out during the vote of confidence on his single-party cabinet on January 10, though that of course would still leave him short of winning an absolute majority of the remaining 163 deputies in the chamber.

Babis' ideal coalition would be with the second biggest party, the rightwing Civic Democrats, but they have so far rebuffed him and have formed a bloc of four rightwing parties against him. Therefore Babis is likely to focus on persuading his former coalition partners, the Social Democrats, to join him, but any breakthrough is only likely after the first vote of confidence has failed, amid mounting fears that he could move closer to the extremists. However, because of their electoral failure and the fragmentation of the vote, he would probably need both his former partners – the Social Democrats together with the Christian Democrats from the rightwing bloc – plus the Pirates or another small centre-right party in order to form a working majority. 

Some Social Democrat regional barons have broken cover to call for the CSSD to rebuild the outgoing coalition government, this time as the junior partner, but the parliamentary party is still licking its wounds from its election thrashing. It will not choose a new leader until February and acting leader Milan Chovanec, one of the potential contenders, is just holding the line, while the party’s 15 deputies are divided on whether to risk working with Babis again.

Some fear the party will be further weakened by acting as Babis’ figleaf in power, while others worry that, if out of power, the CSSD will continue declining and that Babis could launch investigations into some of the corruption scandals that surround the party. “The CSSD is broken, it would be difficult to unite those 15 votes,” says Mladek.

Second stab

Most Czech commentators therefore expect Babis to lose the first vote of confidence, though his cabinet will remain in office until even after a second vote takes place a month or two later. This explains why Babis had such trouble attracting even mediocre ministerial candidates to be in his cabinet.

Babis has been promised a second stab at forming a government by President Milos Zeman. He hopes that by the time of it the other parties’ opposition will have softened, but even here his position is not as secure as it looks.

There is a strong possibility that Zeman may lose the run-off for the presidential election on January 26-27 against, most likely, Jiri Drahos, the former head of the Academy of Sciences. Drahos, or any of the other candidates, would be much less co-operative than Zeman, once they took office in March. Before that happens though, it is possible that Zeman may redouble his efforts to get Babis confirmed as premier, so that the billionaire will ensure he can enjoy a comfortable retirement with the medical help he will require.

Even if Zeman is re-elected, he is unlikely to be such an obvious tool of Babis. Zeman has blatantly favoured Babis up to now, on the understanding that Ano will not put up or even endorse a candidate in the presidential election. But once he is re-elected to a second and final term – one that he is unlikely to finish anyway, given the state of his health – he will be in a strong position to demand concessions from Babis before formally appointing him premier.

These concessions could include accepting Zeman’s nominees for the foreign and defence ministries, where the president has a significant constitutional role. Or he could intrigue to appoint another Ano politician on the grounds that the country needs a majority government. If Babis refuses to comply, Zeman could even try to appoint another caretaker cabinet, as he did in 2013-14.

We should not forget, moreover, that Babis is still under investigation by the Czech police over an EU grant for his Stork’s Nest conference centre. Cynics expect this affair to be quietly forgotten now that he is premier, given the Czech judicial system’s poor record in punishing corruption, but the whole episode is also being probed by Olaf, the EU auditing watchdog, which will not be such a pushover.

It is hard to see how he could win a vote of confidence if either investigation made significant progress. Even Babis may then realise he will have to put forward a placeman, and stand behind the throne. It would indeed be deliciously ironic if Babis’ commanding victory as the anti-corruption tribune were set at naught by such a relatively small case of fraud.

Powerful cards

Nevertheless Babis still has some very powerful cards in his hand. It is going to be extremely difficult for any party apart from Ano to lead a government, given its dominant position in the parliament and the division of the seats among a record nine parties, including the untouchable Communists and neo-fascists.

Moreover, Zeman has promised Babis two attempts to form a government and the parliamentary speaker, Ano’s Radek Vondracek, has the right to nominate any third premier designate. During this time Babis has said he will rule as an elected government regardless of the votes of confidence, and he has been backed by Zeman in this controversial interpretation of the constitution. This will give him momentum, both in the eyes of the public and his opponents.

“It is also being claimed that this is not a legitimate government if it doesn’t get backing in the lower house,” Zeman told a press conference at Babis’ swearing in on December 13.  “The constitution recognises governments as legitimate the moment they are sworn in by the president… so you can work and ignore claims stating otherwise.”

Secondly, Babis can also of course threaten the opposition parties with fresh elections, which can be held once three attempts to win a vote of confidence have failed, at the president's discretion. Given Ano’s continued strength in the opinion polls, Babis’ media empire, the collapse in morale of the other parties and their lack of money, Ano is likely to win an even bigger vote and perhaps even a majority if some of the other eight parties fail to pass the 5% threshold to win seats in parliament.

Thirdly, he may be able to govern as a minority government for a full term by doing deals on individual issues with parties to the left and the right. The government’s draft programme, published on December 18, looks relatively uncontroversial and much of it could attract cross-parliamentary support or would appeal to one party or another. Like Ano’s manifesto, it is a wishlist of ideas, not backed up by serious preparatory work, let alone consultations. Ano lacks experts, particularly those that can draft complex technical legislation, and Babis has always been more focused on the PR impact of promises rather than the hard graft of policy preparation.

The programme could, however, still become bogged down in parliamentary haggling as Babis struggles to first win a vote of confidence and then rule as a minority government. Even once legislation is passed, it could be held up by Zeman or the upper house, until a second vote in the lower house pushes it through. Ano only has six seats in the 81-member Senate, and this balance will not change quickly, as only a third of the seats come up for election every two years.

The billionaire will also find that is much more difficult to command the bureaucracy than it is to run his Agrofert conglomerate, despite all his promises to run the state like a business. Unlike in Poland or Hungary (at least since Viktor Orban took power in 2010) only top officials tend to be changed after elections, and in any case Ano simply lacks the personnel to staff the ministries or lead a massive revamp.

Delays might bring out Babis’ worst tendencies, encouraging him to try to override the checks and balances in the system to ram through his programme. Babis was once filmed telling the Hungarian ambassador how he envied the way strongman Orban commands Hungary. In a book he wrote ahead of the election, he dreamt of abolishing the Senate, halving the number of MPs in the lower chamber, and abolishing regional councils.

The only trace of this in the government programme is the proposal to move to a single round of voting in the Senate elections, which would prevent the other parties ganging up against Ano in the run-offs. But Babis has toyed with passing a referendum bill, as demanded by the neo-fascists, and has talked about speeding up parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. It is not hard to imagine how Babis could decide to pursue this, by trying to turn the public against parliament or the Senate if they obstructed him.

“He doesn’t understand the role of parliament,” says Vladimira Dvorakova, a politics lecturer at VSE in Prague. “He doesn’t understand how it is connected to democracy.”

If Babis tightened his grasp on power like this the damage could be longlasting. “The main danger is the fusion of political and economic power, coupled with a sense that you don’t need politicians,” says Sean Hanley, lecturer in East European politics at UCL in London.