Quo vadis, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš? For everyone, to Europe.

Andrej Babiš, photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml

Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has been re-elected chairman of the ANO party that he founded seven years ago, running unopposed at the party’s congress on Sunday. Polls show Mr. Babiš remains the most popular, trusted politician in parliament, and ANO would win general elections if held today. So, what direction is he looking to take the party – and the country?

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml
Despite facing charges for EU subsidy fraud, accusations of conflict of interest over his Agrofert business empire, and presiding over the first minority government to rely on Communist support since 1989, Slovak-born tycoon-turned-populist politician Andrej Babiš remains comfortably in power.

In his speech to party delegates, Mr. Babiš embraced the mantle of “catch-all-party”, saying ANO’s non-ideological stance had transformed the political scene, and dismissing critics who charge the party – which calls itself a movement – lacks grounding. ANO has programmes for entrepreneurs and employees, pensioners and young families, scientists and athletes, he said. And there’s nothing “weird” about it, a theme he stress in a press conference after the party congress.

“I’d like to say once again that we are in fact a movement for everyone. This is not a new pronouncement. We are a movement without an ideology, a movement that serves everyone and has a programme for everyone. To those political commentators who criticise us a ‘catch-all party’, I say this is a good thing.”

I asked political scientist Jiři Pehe what lies behind this approach – to embrace the “catch-all” label, which, along with “populist” one is often bandied about as a kind of shorthand political pejorative.

Jiři Pehe | Photo: Jana Trpišovská,  Czech Radio
“I was not surprised about his statements about a ‘catch-all’ party, simply because he has said repeatedly the ANO movement is for everyone. It of course doesn’t make much sense from a political science point of view…”

“I think ANO is trying to expand its electorate because Mr Babiš a few years ago turned away from right-of-centre voters and embraced the older, less-educated part of the Czech electorate, trying to gain their support with populist, left policies.”

“His attempt to somehow go back to the voters belonging to the entrepreneurial class, who vote traditionally for the political right, may be quite difficult because he’d at the same time need to keep leftist voters, and parts of these electorates are mutually exclusive.”

“So, I’m not really sure he will succeed. But being sort of a genuine populist, he will certainly try.”

Does it also signal a new thrust as ANO turns its attention to European elections in May? Quite possibly. Mr Babiš devoted a good part of his speech to arguing that the EU’s smaller members should have a bigger say on issues such as allocating the bloc’s budget – which he says is costing the Czech Republic “a huge amount of money” – and setting its migration policy.

Andrej Babiš and Dita Charanzová,  photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml
Jiři Pehe says that whereas six months ago Mr Babiš was focused almost entirely on migration and ready to lead the European election campaign himself, he has realised it is not quite the galvanising issue it was. So he is now trying to position himself as a leading voice for small states on a wider array of issues.

Czech MEP Dita Charanzová was chosen by the ANO party congress to head the party’s ticket for European elections this May. Before being elected to the European Parliament in 2014 as an independent, she worked in the Czech diplomatic service for over a decade.

During that time, she was posted for four years at the Permanent Representation of the Czech Republic to the EU. In the European Parliament, Ms Charanzová is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) political group.