In the largest ever anti-government demonstration since the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia 30 years ago, some 120,000 Czechs came out into the streets in Prague last week to demonstrate against the Prime Minister Andrej Babis. Babis is the Czech Republic’s second-richest person and the owner of Agrofert, a gigantic industrial concern that has an almost total monopoly over Czech food processing industry and agriculture.
This was the fourth demonstration against the prime minister in the past few weeks. Each subsequent demonstration was larger than the previous one. The next demonstration is scheduled on June 23 at the Letná plain, where the largest demonstrations that toppled the communist regime at the end of 1989 took place.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that the initiative has been organized on social networks. At the beginning of the protests, a group of students set up the Facebook page A Million Moments for Democracy. The page and group, headed by student Mikulas Minar, quickly became remarkably popular.
People started supporting the protests in large numbers, especially when a preliminary audit of Babis’ financial activities, produced by the European Union, indicated that Babis is suffering from a conflict of interest and has possibly committed financial fraud. As a top government official, Babis appears to instruct the structures of the state to provide E.U. and government subsidies for his vast business empire.
In April, the Czech police recommended starting criminal proceedings against Babis and his cronies because of his alleged criminal activities. Babis reacted by removing the serving Justice Secretary and replacing him by his ally, triggering the large demonstrations. Many Czechs are worried that Babis is now corrupting the Czech judiciary the same way it is being destroyed by authoritarians in Hungary and Poland.
Babis’ Controversial Past
In certain ways, Andrej Babis is a Donald J. Trump-like character. Many people are bothered by his controversial past. As the son of a highly placed official of the former Czechoslovak communist regime, Babis spent much of his childhood abroad and studied in Paris and Geneva, unlike most Czechoslovaks who could not travel to the West at the time.
Paradoxically, he speaks French like a native, while he can’t really speak Czech. He is a Slovak and although he presents himself as a Czech nationalist and a “defender of Czech interests against the hostile European Union” in his public speeches, his pronouncements in “Czech” are garbled and, maybe somewhat unfairly, the subject of public mockery.
Between 1985 and 1991, Babis was a trade representative of the Czechoslovak communist regime in Morocco. He has been accused that during this time he worked as an important agent of the Czech secret police. On his return to Czechoslovakia in 1991, shortly after the fall of communism, Babis used his influential contacts to create his gigantic concern Agrofert.
Babis’ Business Practices
In 2017, Czech public service Česká televize commissioned Selský rozum, a documentary about Babis’ business practices. The film showed that Babis’ primary business methods are brutal asset stripping and lying. He makes competitors fully dependent, and once this happens, he starves them of cash, brings about their bankruptcy, and takes over their business. At least one victim of Babis’ asset stripping methods has committed suicide.
The film also criticized Babis’ highly controversial agricultural techniques which seriously damage the environment. He grows rapeseed on most of Czech agricultural land, and his use of pesticides is killing the country’s bees.
Babis has also acquired two of the most influential Czech daily newspapers, Mladá fronta Dnes andLidové noviny, the most popular radio station Radio Impuls, and the TV station Óčko. The media owned by Babis do not publish about the anti-Babis demonstrations.
The most worrying development is that the Czech civil service is becoming thoroughly subjugated by Babis. This is easy for him to do because Czech politicians have never approved a law making the civil service politically independent of the ruling parties.
Populism in Czech Republic
How did Babis get into politics? The Czech mainstream establishment parties, which came into being after the fall of communism, became quite seriously corrupt thus managing to discredit themselves and, for many people, also to discredit the whole post-communist democratic system. Their failings have given rise to populism in the Czech Republic.
The vote for Babis’ party ANO in 2017 was a protest vote. Although on entering politics Babis promised to remove corruption from the political system, paradoxically, it has become evident now Babis himself is a seriously corrupt politician. However, he is only a symptom of the system.
As Czech political scientist Jiri Pehe has been pointing out, the Czech Republic does not really have political parties. Organizations that exist in the Czech Republic and pretend to be political parties are actually corrupt businesses that trade in political power. Babis is far from the only corrupt politician-entrepreneur in the current Czech Republic.
Czech politics is extremely tribal, and many people on the social networks argue that the current large anti-Babis demonstrations are the result of manipulation by former center-right political parties who have been removed from power by Babis. The demonstrators indeed protest against Babis’ corruption, but somehow, they are not particularly bothered by the fact that the whole system is rotten and other politicians and oligarchs also steal in the Czech Republic.
Despite the demonstrations, Babis remains popular with many Czechs, as was recently demonstrated by the results of the European Parliament elections, where Babis’ ANO received 21 percent of the vote and placed itself as the largest Czech political party. In opinion polls, Babis’ party still tops 30 percent. It is extremely popular with old-age pensioners and families: Babis has raised social welfare payments to families and has reduced train and bus fares all over the country for students and pensioners to a mere 25 percent of the full fare.
When Babis won the general election in October 2017, he did not achieve an overall majority and was forced to form a coalition government with one of the formerly mainstream parties, the Social Democrats. They have been destroyed by this union, as is evidenced in the May European elections where they received only 4 percent of the vote.
While the right of center parties will not cooperate with Babis, this means that he will henceforth need to use the support of the extremists in the Czech Parliament: the alt-right anti-Muslim party SPD and the unreconstructed communists. This would be a worrying development because it would mean that the populist Babis, who is already attacking the European Union and whipping up hatred against migrants and refugees, would move further towards the authoritarian policies of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who Babis admires.
It remains to be seen whether the large public protests in the streets of Prague and other Czech cities can be transformed into a real political movement. In a way, Babis is right when he says that if student and protest leader Minar wants to compete with him, he should form a political party and compete in the elections. In a democracy, public protests do not count for much.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.