Andrej Babiš enforces the message that democracy is tedious and undesirable
The Czech Prime Minister, Babiš has been accused of undermining democracy on several grounds. His association with communism, lack of transparency, disregard for the rule of law and managerial approach to governance certainly paint a disheartening picture of the Czech Republic’s political condition. Upon close interrogation, though, it seems that scrutiny and active oppositional forces in civil society restrict Babiš’ role to one of testing democracy, rather than destroying it.
Babiš’ registration and collaboration with the State Security Police of former communist Czechoslovakia was revealed in documents disclosed by the National Memory Institute in Slovakia, ruled in Bratislava Court as legitimate in January 2018. Moreover, until February 2017 he remained sole owner of Agrofert, a subsidiary of Petrimex, formerly Chemapol Bratislava, the communist-controlled international trade company for which he previously worked. Since 2013 Agrofert has controlled MAFRA, a publisher of two Czech newspapers and operator of a major television company, as well as radio station Ocko. Combined with his concurrent roles as Ministry of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, such ownership has led to questioning of his political motives and the amount of control such a centralization of power allows him to exercise. A leaked tape has, for example, shown Babiš utilise his newspaper control to manipulate the release of certain stories in his political favor. As such, 2016 saw hundreds of protesters assemble in Wenceslas Square to oppose Babiš’ ‘quiet revolution’, a sly but potent process of curbing civil liberties. In addition, his second cabinet is the first since the fall of Communism to rely on the Communist Party for support in the Chamber of Deputies. Babiš has also been tokened one of ‘Russia’s new kind of friends’, not least because of the role his party exclusively played in the release of an arms dealer with alleged Russian allegiance rather than delivering them to the jurisdiction of the US.
Babiš has also been viewed as a threat to democracy because of his lack of transparency and accountability. Leaders of the recent protest against him cited his fraud allegations surrounding the misuse of EU subsidies, stemming from a fundamental conflict of interest between his role administering these as Minister of Finance, and his commercial stakes in the pattern of such redistribution. While he has since transferred his conglomerate to trust funds, he remains the sole beneficiary, leading EU commission auditors to conclude that he was still profiting from the group and maintained a level of indirect control. This led Adam Drda to describe Babiš as ‘a man whose business interests amount to the biggest conflict of interest in the country’s post-1989 history’. In addition, Babiš has repeatedly displayed disregard for public opinion: his and President Zerman’s public comments on the recent protests fundamentally dismiss the Million Moments for Democracy Movement as paid political slander and show no attempt to reflect upon protesters’ expressed motivations. He has instead used the demonstrations to fuel his ‘one against all’ self-presentation. The stark reconfiguration of his populist appeals from opposition to leadership, particularly regarding the EU, also demonstrate the ease with which he subverts any kind of popular mandate.
Further distaste for the democratic process is seen in Babiš’ blasé attitude towards the rule of law and constitutional protections. Not only has he dismissed the criminal investigation into his actions, he has directly interfered with its process by changing the Minister of Justice the day after police advised the state prosecutor to file charges against him. This is even more alarming considering the new minister had previously voted against a request from the police to remove Babiš’ parliamentary immunity. President Zeman has also assisted Babiš in overriding Czech constitutional conventions, allowing his first ANO government to stay in power despite its failed vote of no confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in October 2017. This supposed ‘caretaker government’ acted far beyond the scope of its role – which is predominantly to maintain the functioning of the state – and essentially depended on the President, therefore contradicting the basic premise of a parliamentary republic. He ignored Civil Service law when firing high-level state-servants, and attempted to fire the Head of the General Inspection of Security Forces, an institution mandated to organize investigations such as the very one into himself which led to the 2017 government crisis.
Democracy as a means of forming and stabilizing government was undeniably challenged by Babiš in this crisis (which was onset by his fraud allegations), and earlier in his reliance on pressure from the President to obtain often reluctant parliamentary support for his first cabinet. His explicit distaste for ‘traditional parties’ – key representative channels of people’s interests and grievances – clearly enforces the message that democracy, at least as we know it, is tedious and undesirable. His declaration that ‘I am not a politician and never will be…I am a manager’ indicates a preference for concentrated power through trusteeship over dispersed power through delegacy. His managerial approach favors technocrats over representatives, treating society as a business rather than a polity. As such, ANO has been described as ‘a political division of Agrofert’. His desire to abolish the Senate and his conviction that ‘there should be politicians in parliament and managers in government’ again poses a threat to the checks on power that are fundamental parliamentary democracy. In this light, it is unsurprising that the Czech Republic’s Democracy Score, according to the Freedom House Report, declined from 2.25 to 2.29 last year. A recent opinion poll also revealed the modal belief that there is no viable alternative to Babiš’ ANO government, especially as Million Moments for Democracy describes itself as strictly a civil society movement. And what is the democratic process worth without electoral choice?
Andrej Babiš has certainly experimented with the norms and classificatory criteria of democracy, but this is not an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it is demonstrative of illiberal trends in the country’s history, and in the experience of other post-communist states more generally. He is also just one of many powerful actors successfully espousing the anti-party populist narrative worldwide. Moreover, his stretching of democratic principles is itself unlikely to overthrow and replace democracy’s structures and practices in any comprehensive, coherent or irresistible way. This if not only because of the lack of viable alternatives – a return to communism is unlikely for several reasons (Babiš rejects communism as an extreme ideology and acknowledges the need for international integration and respect), and ‘populism’ can hardly be envisioned as a model for society. The protest has also been interpreted as evidence of Babiš as a point of revival for democracy: political activism and the debate it generates are arguably indicative of citizens’ empowerment, and represent a political system’s immune response to non-democratic events.
Ultimately, Babiš is not free from democratic restrictions and pressures. Looking around us today, it seems he is part of, rather than deviating from, the contemporary democratic experience. The future of democracy in Czechia is, of course, like any future, uncertain. What we can be sure of, nevertheless, is that its course will be steered in important ways by Andrej Babiš