David Ondráčka: Politics is a contest – not a cartel

David Ondráčka, photo: Ian Willoughby

As the long-term director of the Czech branch of corruption monitors Transparency International, David Ondráčka headed legal challenges to Andrej Babiš that resulted in the European Parliament finding the billionaire Czech prime minister in conflict of interest. Now Mr. Ondráčka is himself entering politics, with People PRO, a new grouping helmed by the former leader of Million Moments for Democracy. I spoke to him before Christmas, shortly after he had left Transparency International.

When it comes to corruption in the Czech Republic, what do you think are the most endemic kinds of corruption, and the most corrosive?

“Well, 31 years after the revolution we still live in post-communism. I think it’s a mentality.

“Corruption is of course a very diverse phenomenon, but I see specifically the very close ties between large businesses, politics and regulators.

“It’s something that is really very corrosive for our society.

“I have seen terrible things in my practice.

“Every party is just an empty shell in my view.”

“When you see that one thing is a puppet show on a stage, but the behind the scenes, in the corridors of power, very often money is simply the only thing that matters and the public interest is ridiculously undermined.

“So I believe this patronage network between large businesses, oligarchs and politics is something that is damaging this country and is actually destroying our future.”

What have your feelings been as you’ve stepped down from Transparency International after 12 or 13 years?

“I was exhausted after those years from the management of the organisation.

“You’re managing 15 to 20 people, you’re doing HR, constantly fundraising – you don’t know if you will be able to pay their salaries next month.

“At the same time, I was very often trying to promote and propose some positive changes, legislative and institutional, but also to set up fair rules of the game.

“And I failed. When I approached politicians, when I approached public officials, I very often saw complete distrust.

Mikuláš Minář,  photo: Ibra Ibrahimovič,  CC BY-SA 4.0

“At the same time, I believe I left a trace behind me.

“We did huge cases and I was confronting and I was very vocal – I named and shamed, very bravely I would say.

“I went against vast interests of billions and billions of crowns and we solved some of the really major cases.

“Without us, without me, nothing at all would have been done.

“So I hope that my legacy somehow remains.”

Now you yourself are going into politics. You’re one of the faces of the new party People PRO with Mikuláš Minář, who used to head Million Moments for Democracy. I have two questions about this. Why after all of these years as an observer are you entering politics? And secondly, why this particular party?

“I’m one of Babiš’s biggest public enemies.”

“I deeply distrust the current political elites. Every party is just an empty shell in my view, not just at government level but also at opposition level.

“They don’t have any connection with ordinary people. And I don’t see any hope.

“My main motivation is that I want this country to be livable. I want it to be safe for myself and prosperous for my kids.

“And I don’t believe the current political elite secures that.

“So I made this step. It’s a huge leap for me. I’ve entered the race and I want to challenge them.

“Mikuláš and I, as a tandem, want to build a new political formation.

“We’re starting from scratch. We don’t have any oligarchs behind us, any media, we collect money from small contributions from people.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

“We want to attract new people, new experts, who feel alienated by the current political elites. And that’s our plan.

“So I made this leap. The welcome hate is really rather unexpected.

“But I believe politics is a competition – it’s not a cartel.”

You mentioned the “welcome hate”. Some have people have been critical of People PRO, even though you haven’t really started properly yet. People are saying that you will help Prime Minister Babiš by dividing the opposition. What do you say to that accusation?

“That’s a ridiculous accusation.

“I was the one who went after Babiš and his misuse of power. I was the one who actually started all these EU audits that will at the end of day result in his illegal subsidies – and we’re talking about billions of Czech crowns – having to be returned.

“I’m one of his biggest public enemies, so it’s ridiculous to accuse me of this kind of action.

“I’m afraid Babiš is thinking about running for president himself, after Zeman.“

“Of course we have a very divided opposition scene, with five political parties.

“Now they are trying to form two blocs. But I have two objections.

“One: It’s so artificial. It’s very clear that the only reason [they are forming blocs] is that they want to get more votes because of our electoral system.

“And the day after [the elections] they will fall apart again.

“The second is, I still don’t believe they attract anyone new. They don’t appeal to anyone new.

“So they will just redistribute the current opposition bloc – and that’s not enough against Babiš and Zeman.

“Because Zeman is actually in charge. He will be the one who after the elections will call someone to form a government.

“And it can be anyone – it doesn’t have to be the winner of the elections. It can be anyone. It’s in his hands.

“I believe this power duo, Babiš and Zeman, won’t give up power so easily.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

“So my intention is not to destroy the opposition but to challenge them, of course, to bring new competent people into politics, and to try to also approach people who do not vote today or who have lost faith in politics completely – the young generation.

“I believe there is enormous potential and I think we can play a significant role.”

In 2013 Andrej Babiš spoke to you about becoming minister of interior in a coalition government he was seeking to join or form. Tell us that story.

“Yes. In 2013 the Nečas government collapsed. TOP 09 left the government and that led to early elections in the fall of 2013.

“After the elections, there was for a week the chance that the forming coalition government would actually invite independent individuals to take ministerial positions, to put things in order, to actually fix things.

“And I was the one who was called and I said, Yes, if that’s the case, I would be open to that debate.

“I gave my conditions: Babiš will not be in the government, because he didn’t have a so-called lustration permit, basically – he was not supposed to be a member of the cabinet.

“My second condition was that all coalition partners would agree.

“And the third was that I would have a free hand in bringing in my own team and my agenda.

“That did not happen. After a week this whole episode was over, and the Social Democrats nominated their own minister.

“New parties emerge, others die. That’s perfectly normal.”

“Funnily, when I talked to them at that moment, they told me that if they didn’t nominate their own minister, they would all end up in jail.

“It’s so ironic and so absurd.”

That was Chovanec [of the Social Democrats]?

“Chovanec became the minister. A guy who doesn’t speak any language by the way and then didn’t participate in European summits when, for instance, the migration crisis came two years later.”

What impression did Babiš make on you at the personal level at that time?

“We met once, honestly, and then he called me.

“And I didn’t have all the information about his background. Who had?

“If you read all these investigative books, they were released after.”

You and Transparency International took cases against Mr. Babiš to the European Commission and he was later found to be in conflict of interest. But in practical terms has Babiš really been harmed? Because he seems to be just continuing here in the Czech Republic more or less as if nothing happened.

“Well, we started it and I was the one who signed all these legal documents, the appeals, that actually started the whole process and the audits.

Milan Chovanec,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

“Of course a lot of people talked about [Babiš’s alleged] conflict of interest, but you had to initiate it legally, so that there is a procedure and audit.

“That’s what I did, but I didn’t expect quick wins and quick fixes.

“I’m convinced that he’s in absolute conflict of interest, that he’s still controlling Agrofert, that he’s lying publicly about this issue every day.

“And the final result will be that this money will have to be returned.

“But what we face today is that there is an enormous state capture issue.

“Public institutions and our government agencies serve his interest and they actually back his ass, to be very open.

“And of course they should be working for the public interest, they should be taking immediate steps to prevent this conflict of interest.

“They should actually stop any financing of these suspicious projects – but they’re continuing it.

“And I believe that it will have further consequences.

“But look at Slovakia, right? For 10 years there Fico and his governments were untouchable.

“It was almost a mafia state.

Robert Fico,  photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio

“Now Fico lost, and all of a sudden investigators, the police and prosecutors, are going after the whole elites: police presidents, prosecutors, judges, oligarchs.

“Next in line is Fico himself. And that can happen in our country as well.

“Babiš can be threatened with penal investigations later.

“But the police and prosecutors need to have free hands to do what they are supposed to do.

“That’s not the case now.

“But that also shows Babiš will not give up freely, even if he’s not doing well in elections.

“So he will everything to stay in power, somehow, because he knows that he’s facing criminal charges and potentially prison.”

You say that Babiš and President Zeman are allies. What’s your understanding of the dynamic of that alliance, if there is one? What are both of them getting out of this relationship?

“I’m sure they are allies and it’s a very pragmatic partnership.

“In my view, Zeman has nothing to lose. He’s not running again, his health state is very difficult.

“But still his main purpose, in my view, is to provoke and to take revenge.

“And he’s using Babiš as a tool to actually take revenge against his opponents and to provoke.”

But why is Babiš going along with this, if what you say is true?

Photo: Martin Pokorný,  Czech Radio

“Because Babiš needs the president’s backing as well.

“The president is not only a symbolic figure.

“He’s also a guy who can step up at certain moments into politics and play not nominating certain ministers.

“And after the elections that’s his magic moment – where he decides what’s going on.

“Second, I’m afraid Babiš is thinking about running for president himself, after Zeman.

“I think that’s part of their deal.

“I’m afraid that the power game after the next [general] elections in 2021 will be done so that it’s favourable for the next presidential elections in 2023.

“And I’m afraid Babiš is preparing for a campaign.”

You mention the elections planned for next autumn. Let’s say your new party, People PRO, doesn’t get into the lower house – what will you do then, in that case?

“We will get there of course. I’m confident.

“We just started last week [in December] – we announced the official start and now we have to of course build the whole structure, attract people and present our programme.

“I understand that’s a whole lot of work, but I’m confident we can do it.

“Of course we also collect support from people. We collect signatures. We ask people to join our network as volunteers.

“And if we see, say in June, that we’re not getting enough support, that there is not enough demand for a new project, a new political group, then we will not run, of course.

“But I believe and I’m confident that we can do it and we can achieve it.

“If I’m not elected I will of course continue my public presence and I will be working normally as a citizen and I will see what happens.

“But that’s life, you know.

“I enter politics openly. I think it’s a competition, it’s a contest. It’s not a life and death issue.

“New parties emerge, others die. That’s perfectly normal. It’s not a cartel.”