ANO’s plans of one of several unknowns thrown up by elections

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

The weekend’s general election delivered a slap in the face to the established Czech political parties. Indeed, much of the electorate seemed to use their ballots as a protest against austerity and perceived corruption, with 40 percent of the vote going to either new populist parties or the Communists. But will the new lower house, with the untested ANO 2011 as a key player, yield a stable and transparent government?

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
For a few hours after the results of the ballot were announced on Saturday, it seemed the Czech Republic might get a coalition government formed by the Social Democrats with support from the ANO group and the Christian Democrats.

But on Sunday, the Social Democrats suffered a major rift when chair Bohuslav Sobotka faced a mutiny by some members of the party’s leadership. This has put coalition talks on hold until the crisis is resolved. Weston Stacey is the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Czech Republic.

Weston Stacey,  photo: CT
“It looks like there are going to be very difficult negotiations within the Social Democrats now. And I think if you look at Mr Babiš’ party [ANO], they are going to have to keep developing their own infrastructure. It’s not yet a fully functioning party which is no criticism of it, it just got started. So I think ANO is still developing its own positions and how it’s going to operate, and the next four to six months is going to be quite challenging for the political scene.

“I hope they will be able to pass a budget and deal with the civil service reform, and I hope that what they promised in terms of good governance and passing more laws in terms of transparency will occur. But the first thing we should do is form a government, and that’s going to be a pretty big task.”

In addition to the uncertain result of the infighting within the Social Democrats, the ANO group is another unknown addition to the Czech political landscape. Formed by the food and media magnate Andrej Babiš, the party came a close second in the elections with over 18 percent. But its vague policy programme and vague positions on a number of issues could be another source of instability. Petr Kužel is the president of the Czech Chamber of Commerce.

Petr Kužel,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková,  ČRo
“Any change for the better is always good news but now, we have not figured out yet what the good news is. In any case, Andrej Babiš and his group are now a key factor – but we don’t whether or not he’ll join the government because what comes out of this party is different each time.

“It will also be important how the winning party, the Social Democrats, will deal with their internal issues. They should do it quick, though, because and protracted process of forming a new government could put the country’s economic stability at risk.”

Andrej Babiš and ANO is indeed an unlikely channel for popular discontent. The country’s second wealthiest man, he has built an agriculture, food-processing and chemistry empire with 28,000 employees in four countries. Mr Babiš was a member of the Communist Party before 1989, and is at present fighting a legal battle over allegations he cooperated with the Communist secret police in his native Slovakia.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
His party promised voters a break from business as usual, pledging to run the country for the benefit of all. But ANO also promised not to raise taxes, create a more favourable business environment and boost economic recovery. However, a lack of clear ideology and policies makes the party hard to read, according to the head of the Czech Small and Medium Entrepreneurs Union, former Civic Democrat deputy David Šeich.

“The new party ANO is unpredictable. It has no history and their programme is not very clear. They could be right-wing or left wing; they’ve changed their opinions on many issues they were asked about. So they are absolutely unpredictable, they have no political experience, and so on. So it’s very difficult to say how they will behave in the future and we are not sure what we can expect.”

Weston Stacey of the American Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, says ANO faces a considerable risk of becoming a one-off success, should they disappoint the expectations of their voters.

“What’s going to be essential for Mr Babiš is to actually deliver on the very broad and vague agenda that he’s presented to the public. He’s promised more transparency in the government, more economic stability and a better investment climate, so he’s going to have to show he can do it. If he doesn’t and if the party’s not able to define itself, I don’t expect it will do as well in the next elections.”

When it comes to transparency, however, some activists believe things could change for the better. A group called Reconstruction of the State asked all candidates running for the lower house to pledge that, if elected, they would support a series of bills to curb corruption and increase transparency.

It turned out that out of the 200 new MPs, 140 of them have literally signed up to the initiative. Pavel Franc is one of the leaders of the project.

“We are realistic and we know we can’t believe all of them. On the other hand, they signed the pledge. Another thing is that if you look at the political parties that can realistically form a coalition, they all signed up to our set of anti-corruption legislation.

“Therefore, I can’t foresee they would simply say, we don’t take this as a priority. It can of course happen but we have a strategy in case it does; we are a civic movement and we have campaign tools to make people aware that the parties do not keep their promises.”

The anti-corruption measures proposed by Reconstruction of the State include bills increasing the transparency of political parties’ financing, posting all public contracts on the web and introducing rules for nominations of board members of state-owned companies. Pavel Franc says that ANO in fact adopted this programme, mainly because they lacked their own.

Photo: CTK
“Mr Babiš joined in as well. Without this, he would run for office with nothing in his hands. He would just criticize the establishment and say that everything was poorly run. But our group simply gave him a chance to actually present an anti-corruption programme. That’s possibly a very positive outcome for the whole country.”

Developments within the Social Democrats make it impossible to predict when coalition talks will actually begin. The party will attempt to resolve its internal conflict at an executive committee session on November 10.

But it is now too early to say how and if the conflict will end, and whether the Social Democrats will remain the leading force in the new lower house. Regardless of the outcome, Czech business leaders hope a new government should be formed as soon as possible. Petr Kužel of the Czech Chamber of Commerce:

“We expected a government should be formed before the end of the year. That’s normal and I have no concerns in this respect. But I’m concerned about a possible gridlock in the negotiations which could bring problems in the stock market and other areas.

“This could even lead to the weakening of the crown and slow down the economic recovery. But I hope this will not happen and we’ll have a new government within a few months if not weeks.”