Political scientist: It is difficult to imagine a prime minister who faces criminal charges

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK

With the election results out, all eyes are now on the ANO party and its controversial leader Andrej Babiš who is likely to be tasked with forming the next government. Will the Czech Republic be headed by a prime minister who faces criminal charges (of EU subsidy fraud) and what are the possible coalition scenarios opening up? Those are issues I discussed with political scientist Jiří Pehe, and I began by asking who are the winners and losers of these elections.

Photo: ČTK
“The winner, of course, is Mr. Babiš and his ANO movement, because although it was expected that he would win it seemed in the last few weeks before the elections that support for his movement was going down, so 30 percent or even more can be considered a big success and will make it much easier for him to dictate the terms during the forming of a coalition. In general the anti-system parties are the winners, because it is not just ANO, but also the Pirates and the Party of Direct Democracy of Mr. Okamura as well as the Communists, although support for them is lower than they expected.”

And who are the losers of these elections? Obviously the parties that were in the coalition government with ANO seem to have lost out…

“Yes, it seems that Mr. Babiš was able to pull over voters from his coalition partners –especially the Social Democrats – but if you look at it in a more general way the loser here is the Czech Left, because the outcome for the Social Democrats and the Communists which have played an important role in Czech politics since the beginning of the 1990s is a huge defeat. And it may actually signal that the Czech Left, the post-communist Left, is on the way out just like in Hungary or in Poland and that is a really important message coming from the Czech elections.”

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Luboš Vedral,  Czech Radio
So what kind of government can emerge – what are the coalition possibilities opening up?

“I think there are two basic possibilities –one of them is a government formed along the same lines as the previous government, with ANO leading that government, but there is a big BUT because of Mr. Babiš’ personal role, since he would probably need to appoint someone else from his party at least until he is able to clear his name. If he decides that he wants to be prime minister under any circumstances then he will probably have to start negotiating with the anti-system parties and in that case the Pirates would be the most obvious choice. But if they say they will not work with him, then Babiš is in trouble as far as his personal role in the government is concerned.”

Civic Democratic Party,  photo: ČTK
Is there a possibility of a centre- right government with Babiš?

“That would almost take a coup within the Civic Democratic Party. We know there are politicians in the party who are open to cooperating with Mr. Babiš, but the party’s leader Petr Fiala says what all the other traditional parties are saying – a coalition with ANO is possible, but not with Babis as prime minister. So there is a possibility of a coalition with the Civic Democrats, but Babis would have to pay the same price as in a coalition with his current partners – he could not serve as prime minister.”

It looks like we can expect difficult negotiations. Do you foresee a drawn-out crisis?

“Yes, I think the negotiations will be very difficult, not just because of the charges Mr. Babiš now faces, but because the European agency OLAF has still not released its report on him and when it does so – and it seems it will not be very favourable for Mr. Babiš - then that would further weaken his role in forming the next government and he would probably have to leave it to someone else in his party. It is difficult to imagine that the Czech Republic could be headed by a prime minister who faces criminal charges.”

Photo: ČTK
But he was won the elections – what does that say about Czech politics and how will it be viewed abroad?

“The question is what it says about the Czech electorate, because it seems that a third of the electorate did not mind the fact that Mr. Babiš faces criminal charges and they took his word that he is simply the victim of a witch hunt. This is troubling because in most democratic countries it would probably be a significant factor in deciding whom to vote for. It is troubling, because no matter how the coalition talks turn out, this factor will play an important role and it will be discussed internationally again and again. In foreign media reports about the Czech elections this piece of information will be one of the main issues readers or viewers will receive: the Czech Republic will probably be headed by a prime minister who is criminally prosecuted.”

Photo: European Commission
What would it do to the country’s role in the EU for instance?

“That may be a factor to consider, certainly. It is difficult to say whether Brussels would do anything or take any concrete steps. I think their line will be that it is the Czech Republic’s domestic problem but it will definitely weaken the Czech position in general, because imagine a prime minister who faces criminal charges – and who will likely be further undermined by the OLAF report – going to a European summit. So I think the Czech Republic would not do very well within the European Union and that might prompt Mr. Babiš to become more anti-European than he already is and that would be very damaging for the Czech Republic.”

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK
So what made Czech voters vote as they did? The economy is in very good shape, unemployment is the lowest in Europe - so why are they voting for anti-establishment parties ?

“There are several reasons. There is a general trend that we can also see in the West of a revolt against the traditional parties. They seem to be too rigid, too cumbersome, sometimes too corrupt and Mr. Babiš has used this very skillfully in his campaign. He has portrayed himself as an outsider who has come to the Czech political mainstream to save the country and this has worked. Then we have to see that times are changing and these traditional parties, not just in the Czech Republic, are not very flexible in dealing with various new challenges associated with globalization and new challenges and people may feel that a party lead by an authoritarian leader may have more flexible answers.”

Illustrative photo: Archive of Czech Radio - Radio Prague
“In the post-communist countries there is an added dimension that people of the older generation go back to the mental stereotypes they developed during communism and when they feel a degree of anxiety or insecurity they yearn for some kind of authoritarian rule. We can see this in all the post-communist countries, especially in the Visegrad countries and Mr. Babiš fits that profile.”

Do you foresee any effort on the part of the traditional parties to keep him out of the next government by forming a broad coalition – in view of all this?

“That was their idea, originally, that they would be able to do this, but it was clear even before the elections that the ability to by-pass Mr. Babiš will be determined by the measure of his success in the elections – whether he gets 20 percent or 30 percent. With 20 percent he could have been by-passed, but with 30 percent it will be much more difficult.”