Czechs Smitten by Babiš

15. 3. 2017

Thanks to Hašek, Kafka, Kundera or Havel, among others, the Czechs are considered to be a nation inclined to critical self- doubt and, generally, not to take themselves too seriously. This attractive feature, which usually protects the Czech society from a momentary lapse of reason other nations in the Central Europe occasionally tend to suffer from, seems to have disappeared lately. As if Václav Havel’s death broke some sort of a mental dam and the bottom muck from Czech ponds has spilled into the countryside. It does not only concern president Miloš Zeman, whose embarrassing behavior and views have devastating effect, but luckily, thanks to the limited powers of presidency, the damage is more aesthetic than political. The Finance Minister and leader of the political party ANO Andrej Babiš presents a much bigger challenge. As one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the Czech Republic he controls virtually the entire food chain in the country; as a media mogul he owns the biggest newspaper and one of the most popular radio stations to boot.

Such concentration of political, media and financial power in hands of one person is really extraordinary and in Europe we can find a parallel only in Berlusconi. How is it possible then, that the Czechs voted his party into the second position in the country (18.6% in 2013 elections) and ANO is polling consistently on the first position (30%). Where has gone the typical Czech vigilance?

It is true that the political right in parliament opposition, though devastated, rings the alarm and misses no opportunity to denounce the many conflicts of interests. Journalists who left the newspaper in protest against the new owner have founded several news platforms and bash Babiš with great gusto as the nemesis of democracy. Nevertheless, Czech voters do not seem to perceive him as a threat, on the contrary. They seem to be impressed by his success. And it is also true that for average citizens the accumulation of his power is something so abstract that it has no influence on their daily life.

In reality the Babiš phenomenon is really dangerous for the Czech society. Not for his political views, which are somewhat changeable, but in principle they are within rational boundaries. The problem lies in his understanding of power, which he uses ruthlessly as he sees fit—his coalition partners have been taken by surprise with his speedy claiming of any available position in the state structure. In the ANO political party, which is financed by large with his own money, he is an authoritative leader who does not get contradicted and is worshipped by his fellow party folk. In February, he was re-elected by 100% votes as the chairman.

So far he has managed to destroy two key newspapers, which have become an obvious tool of his policies and are used for justification of every dubious step he is about to take (i.e. to sack a government minister whom he previously named into his position).

And so it is fitting to ask ourselves again: where has the Czech vigilance gone? The correct answer is that it has never existed. After 1989, the Czechs were simply lucky not to have experienced a systemic threat to democracy and a corresponding type of crisis other Central European countries have gone through—Mečiar’s era in Slovakia, a two-year episode of Kaczyński in Poland and the current autocratic government of Orbán in Hungary.

Czech politics has never been a pretty sight, but in the 25 years since 1989, the founding principles of democracy have never been in real danger. Thus the Czech society did not have to mobilize in order to save democracy, and, therefore, it does not have the experience of how quickly things can go wrong. Relevant resistance against the kind of populism and concentration of power embodied by Andrej Babiš has not yet been created.

It is safe to assume that in Slovakia Babiš, himself a Slovak, would never stand a chance. It is true that Slovak premier Fico is not the democracy’s greatest proponent, but he does not dare to aspire to acquiring such a systematic conglomerate of business, politics and media, as he rightly suspects that the Slovaks, after their experience with Mečiar, would not tolerate it and alarm bells would be set off across the society.

Fico, for example, would never attempt to acquire the ownership of media outlets even though he is often in bitter conflict with journalists and is in habit of suing them for libel. It can even be said that during his government the public radio and television have improved, even though they are still very careful when dealing with politics, but they are not a mere amplified extension of the government views.

In the Czech Republic, on the other hand, the public Czech TV finds itself under an increased pressure from president Zeman, and Mr. Babiš, who both criticize its news and reporting and often muse in public about how expensive, ergo wasteful it is, and that it would be best to scrap the license fees altogether. The Czech TV, to its credit, bravely bears the brunt of these attacks, but the whole situation is sending a serious signal that some elementary rules about the division of power and democratic principles as a whole, which have long seemed to be embedded safely in the society, are suddenly in question.

It is hard to say how much of the Babiš phenomenon is intertwined with the passing of Václav Havel. Polls do show, however, that Babiš has managed to attract many right-of-center voters, some of them who used to be very close to Havel, for example from the Schwarzenberg’s TOP 09. And it is also a fact that since Havel’s death there has not been any personality with similar amount of authority to whom the Czechs would listen.

For sure, Babiš can make mistakes and his popularity can dive. As far as his cult-building is concerned, he has not made a serious blunder yet. It is quite feasible then that one day, Babiš will pull out all the stops and the Czech society shall find itself completely unable to withstand him. If that comes to pass, there will be a lesson to be learnt: in Central Europe, no nation is immune to a crisis of democracy, and each has to fight its way through. One can only hope the result will be a stronger, healthier and more immune society.

Martin M. Šimečka

Milan M. Šimečka is a Slovak author and journalist. He was one of the Slovak authors who published in “Samizdat literature” during Communism. His novel The Year of the Frog has been translated into English, French and other languages and he won the L. A. Times Book Prize in 1994. He was one of the founders of the revolutionary public movement against Violence in Slovakia in November 1989. Martin also founded the independent publishing house Archa. He later became editor-in-chief of Domino-forum. He acted as editor-in-chief of SME, Slovakia’s leading daily newspaper, and later as editor-in-chief of Respekt, a well-known Czech weekly. He has been a commentator for Dennik N, a newly founded daily newspaper in Slovakia since 2016.

Last edited October 2022.

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