At one point, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, seemed so untouchable, a man that no accusations could stick to, even earning the nickname “Babisconi”. But the pace of politics changes very quickly. After the revelation that Babiš was implicated in the Pandora Papers, buying a mansion on the French Riviera for 19 million euros, through an offshore one, which emerged on the eve of Saturday’s legislatives, his party, the Alliance of Discontented Citizens (YEAR 2011) , ended up beaten by SPOLU (Together, in Czech), a coalition of his rivals. The polls showed the SPOLU with 5% less voting intentions than the YEAR 2011, according to Politico. The result – they had 27.8% and 27.1% of the votes, respectively – surprised everyone and everything. Especially Babiš’s great ally, President Milos Zeman, who found himself hospitalized in intensive care shortly after learning of the 2011 YEAR defeat.
The point is that the 77-year-old president, a heavy smoker, who is in a wheelchair, suffering from type II diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, is the prime minister’s great hope, having promised to appoint the leader of the most voted party – coalitions like the SPOLU, made up of three centre-right parties, are a “fraud”, he declared – to form a Government. Regarding the YEAR 2011, he even managed to elect one more deputy than SPOLU, even with slightly fewer votes, as such Babiš would have the nomination of his friend President practically guaranteed.
But now, as much as the hospital ensures Zeman’s health conditions are stable, according to Reuters, calls for Parliament to declare him incapable are gaining momentum. And everyone looks to the line of succession, unsure of what to expect in the future. Right now, who would have the decision-making power would be the Speaker of Parliament, Radek Vondrácek, from the YEAR 2011, but the opposition is preparing to take his position to votes by the end of the month, as soon as the new deputies take office.
Even if Babiš gets the mandate to form Government, he has no obvious majority in sight. The allies who had coalesced with him, the Czech Social Democratic PartyČ (CSSD, in the Czech acronym) – seen with some embarrassment within the European Socialist Party, being much more conservative than its other members – and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), which ruled the country in the Iron Curtain times, could not even obtain the 5% margin of votes needed to enter Parliament. Suddenly, the YEAR 2011 found itself looking around for partners. Analysts point out that, should Babiš receive a mandate to form a Government, his only option is to burn time, bet on weariness, trying to seduce with promises any of the parties that make up the SPOLU.
Can Whether Babiš manages to remain in power or not, the Czech Republic is unlikely to see him far from public life anytime soon. “I don’t give up, even if I end up in opposition, I will stay in Parliament,” the prime minister told Frekvenci 1. And, even outside Parliament, Babiš retains enormous influence. After all, we are talking about the second richest man in the country, with a fortune estimated at almost 3.5 billion by Bloomberg, thanks to a conglomerate of hundreds of food, biodiesel or fertilizer companies, and owner of much of the Czech press , including three of the most read titles, the Mlada fronts DNES, Metro and Lidové noviny, as well as the popular Radio Impuls. Babiš decided to buy them after founding his party in 2011, as the name implies.
These publications suddenly began to “regularly have sympathetic coverage of Babiš, and criticism from his opponents”, noted Foreign Policy a few years ago in an article on how the Czech Republic, once presented as a model for European integration of countries from the east, had become a source of concern over the rule of law. “After years of genuine independence from the media, many Czechs speak of a return to the 1970s, when journalists aligned themselves with the political order”, the magazine was surprised, even before the leader of the YEAR 2011 became prime minister in 2017 “Babiš wants to control, not just transform, Czech politics.”
Ironically, Babiš, described as an oligarch, came to power under the banner of fighting corruption, gaining support when a Lidové noviny investigation uncovered irregularities in the privatizations carried out by the CSSD’s then Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka. Babiš himself would end up ruling alongside his former Social Democratic opponents, while being investigated by the European Union, for “misuse of his influence over several years to multiply his personal wealth through EU programmes. ”, reads a statement – critics of Babiš say he was once the individual who received the most European subsidies nationwide.
Babiš’s rhetoric, with a populist, nationalist tone and seeing migrants as the great adversary, may sound familiar. “Trump said, ‘make America great again.’ That’s what I say too. Let’s make the Czech Republic strong again”, declared the prime minister to his followers, cited by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), in the article revealing his connection to the Pandora Papers.
Compared to the previous scandals Babiš had been accused of, this one seemed a small thing, but perhaps it played a part in his defeat this Saturday. The image he leaves is not pretty, as the self-proclaimed man of the people used an offshore network to secretly buy the five-bedroom Chateau Bigaud, with three hectares of land, between medieval ruins and forest, near Mougins, the village at the top from a hill where Picasso went to die.
Now, Babiš’s defeat could also become a problem for one of his great international allies, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who went to the Czech Republic in full campaign to support his friend.
In the first place, they are unlikely allies. Babiš is supported by parties of the European Socialist Party, Orbán’s party was part of the European People’s Party. The Czech Prime Minister was born in a region that at the time was known as “Upper Hungary”, and which is part of Orbán’s dreams of a “Greater Hungary”. The Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in Europe, Hungary is governed by an Executive who wants to be the spearhead of the “Christian identity”. But, in practice, Babiš, Orbán and their Polish counterpart have become the hub of a conservative bloc increasingly clashing with Brussels – and one that could lose one of its pillars, with the Czech Republic in political turmoil in the aftermath of the Pandora Papers.