Coalition talks in danger as Christian Democrats insist on agriculture ministry

Andrej Babiš, Bohuslav Sobotka, Pavel Bělobrádek, photo: CTK

Three-party talks between the Social Democrats, ANO and Christian Democrats on forming a new government have hit a major stumbling block. The Christian Democrats are insisting on their party running the Ministry of Agriculture. The party, led by Pavel Bělobrádek, has 14 MPs in the new parliament, far fewer that ANO’s 47 and the Social Democrats’ 50. It has already been complaining about the number of ministries – two instead of three – it will be able to run in a future coalition government. Now a new battle is afoot, with the party threatening to abandon the coalition altogether if the agriculture ministry falls under the influence of Agrofert head and ANO leader Andrej Babiš.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
I asked political analyst Erik Best for his take on why this ministry has become such a major battleground.

“There is certainly a bit of a question about why all of a sudden the Christian Democrats are so interested in it when they haven’t really shown that much interest in this ministry in the previous weeks. Apparently what is happening is that they are trying to prevent it from going to Mr. Babiš of ANO. The Christian Democrats feel that if Mr. Babiš runs the Ministry of Agriculture, then he will control too much of the agriculture market. And a large portion of the Christian Democrats’ electorate are connected to the agriculture market.”

Do you think the Christian Democrats have a point? That it would be wrong for ANO to control the Ministry of Agriculture?

“I think it is becoming apparent that Mr. Babiš’s goal from the start of government negotiations has been to take control of the agricultural sector. He’s the head of the largest agri-business in the country, Agrofert. The first indication of this was when he put his own chief lieutenant from Agrofert into the position of the chairman of the agricultural committee in parliament. And at the same time they started talking about how they could not have the agriculture ministry because it would be a conflict of interest. This has progressed to the point whereby, on Wednesday, Mr. Babiš said he would actually not have a conflict of interest and that there is no reason for anyone to be upset and that he should have the ministry – but perhaps, he added, we will give it to the Social Democrats in the interest of reaching an agreement with our coalition partners, but we do not want it to go to the Christian Democrats because they would abuse it in the realm of church restitutions.”

Pavel Bělobrádek,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
Could you explain the fear with regards to restitutions and how the Ministry of Agriculture could be a place where this could be influenced?

“The Christian Democrats want the church restitutions to go through without any troubles – they want the land, property and forests to be returned to the churches. The Social Democrats largely based their platform on the promise that they would reduce the amount that would be distributed. And the land office that is actually in control of deciding which specific property meets the criteria and will be released is controlled by the agriculture ministry. And the person in charge of that office is appointed by the agriculture minister. Mr. Babiš’s party is not directly involved in that dispute, but if his party does not get on well with the minister, that could affect ANO in terms of farm subsidies, contracts for forests and timber. Because Mr. Babiš is also now in the timber business. So there is a triangle there of diverse interests that revolve around the agriculture ministry, and it really comes down to money, power and relationships with voters.”

Do you think Pavel Bělobrádek, the Christian Democrat leader, is trying to play a role that does not reflect the size of his party’s electoral mandate?

“As an analyst I was impressed by his early negotiations. I think more recently, he is taking a bit of a risk, because he is making ultimatums, saying that if we do not get what we want, we will be happy to go into opposition. And he might be underestimating Mr. Babiš, who is a very fierce negotiator, and who has done this many, many times. Not on the government level but on the business level.”