Jiří Přibáň: Potential Babiš attempt to create presidential regime “biggest risk of election”

Jiří Přibáň

Since the first round of the presidential elections, many Czech liberals have expressed indignation at the language of candidate Andrej Babiš, with the billionaire ANO leader attempting to depict opponent Petr Pavel, a former head of the army, as a “warmonger”. But given that the bookies make Mr. Pavel favourite, isn’t there a certain logic to Mr. Babiš’s approach? And if it works, mightn’t he then rein in the rhetoric and become a temperate head of state? I discuss those questions – and much more – with commentator Jiří Přibáň, a law professor at Cardiff University.

Andrej Babiš on billboard | Photo: Radek Petrášek,  ČTK

Last weekend after Andrej Babiš released billboards implying that his opponent Petr Pavel would drag Czechs into war you wrote that the presidential elections now “weren’t democratic elections but elections about democracy”. What specifically did you mean by that?

“First, if you use a billboard which is aesthetically like the billboards of the extreme right Freedom and Direct Democracy party, you are making not just an aesthetic but also ideological connection.

“This billboard, in its visual form, was a step beyond democratic contestation.

“This is what I meant.

“And second, in terms of politics, it’s an appeal to something, which is talking about peace so much but in reality the billboard is a declaration of war.

“So it is like a return to the old Communist propaganda, which was based on talking as much about peace as possible, while launching wars – against other states, and their own peoples.”

So it’s a kind of doublespeak?

“Exactly. This billboard is a return to Communist, Orwellian doublespeak.”

Jindřich Šídlo | Photo: Luboš Vedral,  Czech Radio

I’m sure you also saw last weekend the commentator Jindřich Šídlo saying that if Czech politics has withstood Andrej Babiš [as PM] and Miloš Zeman [president] being in power at the same time, it can also withstand a president Andrej Babiš, and that such a change would be aesthetic. What do you say to his assertion?

“I think that’s dangerous complacency.

“We should remember one metaphor – that political regimes can be finished by a coup, by regime change, or a revolution: a coup or a revolution.

“But at the same time political regimes can die slowly.

“The reason why we didn’t end up in the same situation as Poland or Hungary is only because of the constitutional framework.”

“And what we have been witnessing in the last 20 years, especially in the last decade, was a gradual deterioration of constitutional democracy, to the point that we saw several outright attempts at regime change, into a presidential system.

“I wrote about it a number of times.

“Miloš Zeman really tried to programmatically change the constitutional framework into a more fitting, authoritarian settlement.

“With Andrej Babiš we would have the continuation of the same policy.

“So it’s not just a matter of style, it’s a matter of substance.

“And let’s not be mistaken – constitutional democracy is at stake in the Czech Republic as much as in other countries in Europe.

“And the reason why we didn’t end up in the same situation as Poland or Hungary is only because of the constitutional framework.

“And with a president attacking the constitution, we cannot afford another one.”

Andrej Babiš in front of Peter Pavel's poster | Photo: Radek Petrášek,  ČTK

If we speak about the tactics that Andrej Babiš has been using since the end of the first round, how do you view the ploys that he’s coming out with?

“Andrej Babiš is repeating Miloš Zeman’s tactics: Avoid as many debates as you can, especially those where you fear that you could be scrutinized by independent journalists, and build your campaign on fear tactics.

“But Andrej Babiš is not Miloš Zeman.

“He has been part of Czech politics in the last decade, so he doesn’t have a hiatus of 10 years hugging trees in Vysočina.

“And he is not as strategically clever and planning as well as Zeman.

“So I think that he will repeat the same tactics but it can backfire.

“And I think we are witnessing these days that the initial stage of his campaign for the second round hasn’t been successful so far.”

But can you blame him for taking this approach? A few months ago people were saying he wasn’t going to run because the polls looked bad for him and he’d be humiliated. Now it looks like the only way he can win is to take the gloves off.

“He is going extreme and people are legitimately asking whether this extreme campaigning and discourse is turning into extreme politics.”

“Politics is always a contact sport and Andrej Babiš knows it very well.

“But with his billboards, with his campaign, he is taking it beyond the democratic discourse and beyond the value consensus of democratic parties, whether they are populist or more traditional, mainstream parties.

“So he is pushing ANO beyond the limits of democratic politics – and that’s why it is creating tensions and protests even within his own movement.

“He is going extreme and people are legitimately asking whether this extreme campaigning and discourse is turning into extreme politics.”

Petr Pavel and Andrej Babiš | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

Is there a possibility that he could run in this kind of inflammatory way, because he knows that’s the only way to win, and if he were to win then to become a regular, normal, statesman-like president?

“I’m afraid it is very difficult to step back from this rhetoric, especially because Andrej Babiš was using it in the past.

“So it will be almost impossible for him to become a president of the Czech Republic that can unite the citizens of the country, that can be a negotiator, a moderator of the political debate.

“No, we would see a heavily political president who would try to transform the system from a parliamentary into a presidential regime.

“And I think this is the biggest risk in this presidential election.”

Petr Pavel | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

We should also speak about his opponent. Some people have reservations about Petr Pavel, they find it unacceptable that he has a Communist past. What do you say to that?

“I would say that the past is always problematic, but the question is how you deal with the past.

“In the end this election is not so much about the past itself, because it’s almost like asking in 1938 whether Czechoslovakia successfully ‘de-habsburged’ its state apparatus.

“It’s almost like asking in 1938 whether Czechoslovakia successfully ‘de-habsburged’ its state apparatus.”

“So for many people it’s over 30 years ago – and what matters is how you deal with your own past.

“And in that sense Pavel’s apologetic attitude is much more honest and trustworthy than Andrej Babiš’s false claims over how he won his court battles to clear his name, when in fact we know that the Slovak system of justice ruled differently.”

Petr Pavel in 1983 | Photo: Vladimír Mertlík,  'V první linii'/Academia

Some people would say that Petr Pavel hasn’t been honest because he hasn’t admitted everything about his past, but I guess that we’re not going to resolve that here. What about the argument of both Mr. Babiš and Miloš Zeman that the president ought to be a politician in order to be capable of doing the job well? I’ve got to admit that sometimes when I see people with no political experience running for president I think, Why do they think they can do this job?

“I think that’s a wrong perspective.

“The Czech president has to have experience with politics, but he or she doesn’t have to be a professional politician.

“If you look at the history of Czech and Czechoslovak presidents in that respect Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, until the first world war, was the only elected member of his political party, of the Realists.

“And Václav Havel would have no chance in politics.

“So I think this is an entirely wrong perspective.

“I believe that you cannot step into a presidential campaign nowadays, because we have a direct vote, if you don’t have any experience.

“So for me a person has to have experience either as a prosecutor or as a judge, as a civil servant or as a diplomat.

“But I wouldn’t say that candidates have to come from the executive branch.”

Prague Castle - residence of the Czech President | Photo: Pixabay,  Pixabay License

When I first lived here people were always telling me that the president is a very special figure, somebody almost beyond criticism. Do people still have that reverence today?

“I’m afraid they do.

“This is the difference between the written text of the Czech Constitution, which grants some powers to the president but the Constitution clearly states that the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential republic…

“Czechs perceive the president as some kind of quasi monarch.”

“However, there are deep undercurrents in the Czech constitutional and political traditions – and they go back not to the First Republic and the reverence for Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher king, politician king.

“I think that it goes even deeper into history and that Czechs perceive the president as some kind of quasi monarch.

“And the fact that Czech presidents reside at the Castle only contributes to this idea of the Czech president as sitting not just above everyday politics but sitting above politics as such.”

Miloš Zeman | Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

Miloš Zeman will be stepping down in March. What state does he leave the presidency in?

“In a state of destruction and chaos.

“So the next president should be rebuilding the house of the presidency.

“This is I think important for the future of democracy and the future of politics in this country, that people restore trust in the public work of politicians, such as the president and other constitutional figures.

“And that people can see that not just rules, not just laws, but also conventions and mores… they are not stupid but probably the most important thing that we rely on as one democratic society.”

On Saturday next week we will know who the next Czech president is. But I saw an interesting question on social media. As we have seen, in some countries defeated populists have refused to accept the result of elections. Is that at all possible here, do you think, if Babiš were to lose?

“I can’t imagine it, simply for two reasons.

“First, the Czech Statistics Office is one of the best in the world.

“So a couple of hours after elections, after the door closes, the ballot boxes are counted and you get the result – and nobody has ever questioned the result.

“The system of counting is not like in Chicago: Vote early and often.

“And second, let’s not forget that the presidential election isn’t about the ultimate executive power in the country.

“It is about who is going to represent the state and who’s going to be part of the executive power.

“So in that respect, I just can’t imagine that somebody would dispute it.”

Petr Pavel | Photo: Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

You’re a seasoned observer of Czech politics. Who’s going to win?

“Petr Pavel.

“Because he can mobilise the forces of democracy against the campaign of negative emotions.

“And I think that in that sense it is to his benefit rather than to his weakness.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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