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Babis Seeks Summer Solace

In the face of massive street demonstrations, the Czech prime minister must be hoping that the holidays bring the warm winds of apathy.

by Martin Ehl 12 June 2019

Andrej Babis is prime minister and the second-richest Czech, but not many people would want to be in his shoes right now. He has been accused of a conflict of interest over EU subsidies for his conglomerate Agrofert, and is facing calls to lose both his minister of justice and his own political job.

 

According to leaked information, Babis faces accusations on the European level, that Agrofert received EU subsidies, which are allocated by a member state's government – in this case, represented by Babis as prime minister and ministers from his ruling party, ANO. This follows a previous investigation of the misuse of EU funds by a small company that concealed its connection to Agrofert.

 

Public pressure on Babis is growing, with a large demonstration in central Prague last week attracting around 100,000 people. An even bigger one is planned for 23 June.

 

The march organizers, the NGO Million Moments for Democracy, say they want to match the numbers from November 1989, when huge protests helped to bring down the communist regime. The biggest demonstration at that time was about a million people, but in this 30th anniversary year of the Velvet Revolution, any protest has huge symbolism.

 

The demonstrations started in May, with calls for Babis to recall his new minister of justice – Marie Benesova, who has a history, during President Milos Zeman’s first term, of being willing to pressure courts and prosecutors to decide in favor of political interests. The demands then widened to include the prime minister’s resignation, after the news about the EU funds was leaked.

 

This amounts to an outright accusation that Babis has abused his position to shield himself from investigations and accusations of misusing EU money, a clear attack on the rule of law in the Czech Republic.

 

Given how the justice system has been distorted in Poland and Hungary, these fears are not without foundation. However, in an interview with the Czech daily newspaper Hospodarske Noviny, at last week's Globsec conference in Bratislava, the British historian and political scientist Timothy Garton Ash stressed hope.

 

“The situation in the Czech Republic is not comparable to [that of] Hungary, in the sense that I no longer consider Hungary a liberal democracy,” he said.

 

The state of the Czech justice system is now the key to the future. Prosecutors and the courts have a mixed record, and are slow to process cases, but there have been no major political failings.

 

Yet Babis, too, has reasons for hope, and a powerful ally.

 

His hopes rest on time and the impact of the summer. He has always been like Teflon, deflecting all accusations, while the media outlets in his holdings have helped him manipulate public opinion. Now the disruptions of the summer holidays may cause the effects of the demonstrations to dissipate, while he and his government officials somehow whitewash or bury the EU accusations. For example, no official response to the accusations – from Czech ministries of finance, agriculture, and regional development, and also prosecutors – can be sought until the official translation into Czech of the 70-page document is available, which could take two months.

 

With the support of the president, Babis might well withstand public pressure, come what may. Both Babis and his ally Zeman have tried to undermine the credibility of the protest organizers, who have been financing the events with the help of crowdfunding.

 

The 30th anniversary of the fall of communism might seem to be a good time to clean up politics. However, political realists would say that there is no credible political alternative. Babis’s party ANO has around 27 percent support in the polls, while the second-ranked Pirates Party has around 14 percent, similar to the conservative ODS party in third place. The opposition has been unable to form a united strategy.

 

Within Babis's own party, there is no alternative to him as prime minister, because ANO is a one-man show. In addition, ANO's small coalition partners, the Social Democrats, are fighting for political survival, so they are limited to some very unattractive options – either walk away or stay and be dirtied by the connection with Babis.

 

There is no clear and easy solution on the table. However, it could be that the hot spring and early summer could easily transform into a fevered autumn. And I'm not just talking about the weather.

Martin Ehl
 is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny (HN), a Czech business daily.
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