Sean Hanley: Babiš’s technocratic populism has replaced right-wing politics of previous decades

Sean Hanley, photo: Ian Willoughby

Dr. Sean Hanley is an expert on democracy and parties in the Czech Republic and is the author of The New Right in the New Europe: Czech transformation and right-wing politics. When we sat down last week at his office at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London, the conversation took in the demise of the Czech right since the book’s publication in 2007, the rise and rise of ANO and the immediate prospects for prime minister designate Andrej Babiš. But I first asked the political scientist what had led him to his specialisation.

Sean Hanley,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Like many people, I initially did a Russian degree. This was in the mid to late 1980s. It was the perestroika, Gorbachev period and it was a slightly fashionable thing to do.

“I did that at Leeds University, which also had a Czech option, and partly through being at Leeds University I ended up marrying a Czech and living in the Czech Republic.

“And I guess what’s always interested me is Czech politics is that, certainly in the 1990s, it seemed to be very closely following British models, as far as right-wing politics was concerned.

“It seemed to be developing into a good approximation of a Western European-style party system, with conservatives and Christian Democrats and Social Democrats.

“Yet at the same time, these models didn’t quite fit the kind of society that I was learning about and living in.

“And I guess that’s always been the hook that interested me in Czech politics.”

In 2007 you wrote The New Right in the New Europe: Czech transformation and right-wing politics, in which you suggest that Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic was kind of an exception in post-communist Eastern Europe. In what way was he an exception?

“In many Central and Eastern European countries, the centre right as it emerged was quite conservative and nationalist and skeptical of the market. And really stressing, let’s say in Poland or in Hungary, that there were very distinct national conservative traditions.

Václav Klaus,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Now Václav Klaus said he was a Thatcherite and a neo-liberal and that he was following a model of what was called standard politics.

“Although if you drilled down, you found that actually Václav Klaus was perhaps representative of a much older Czech tradition of let’s call it national liberalism, and although Klaus himself moved over the years to a more socially conservative and overtly nationalistic position, what marked out the Czech right – and still does, to some extent – is that it was oriented towards the West and was much more concerned with market forces than with the kind of issues that preoccupied the Polish or Hungarian right, which are to do with religion and social policy and family.

“The Czech right has always been more focused on the market and efficiency.”

For you, how has the Czech right developed since your book came out?

“The Czech right that I was writing about has very much receded.

“When I wrote my book, although I have to say I wasn’t aware of it, 2006/2007 was really the zenith of the Czech right and subsequently it started to decline.

“In some ways the demand for a broad movement of the centre, which Babiš represents, and which Civic Forum represented, never really went away.”

“These days the Civic Democrats are a relatively minor party. And if we look to TOP 09, who represent a more pro-European brand of right-wing, pro-market politics, they only just made it into Parliament.

“So the answer to your question really is that that kind of right-wing politics has receded, and in its place we see the kind of technocratic populism of Andrej Babiš.”

That was my next question – how do you explain the phenomenon of Andrej Babiš and ANO and their amazing success?

“There’s a mixture of things. Everywhere in Europe, including in Central Europe, established parties have been under pressure from outsiders, or at least insiders who could repackage themselves as being on the outside.

“We saw that in America with Trump and we can see it in different forms everywhere in Europe.

“I think at the same time there was always a mismatch between the sort of left-right politics that Václav Klaus but then also Miloš Zeman were presenting – saying politics is about left and right and they alternate – and the fact that there’s always been a large constituency for a kind of broadly middle of the road social market politics which will just get things done.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“When Andrej Babiš started his movement in 2011 he said that it was going to be a kind of Civic Forum and everyone snorted and thought, That’s ridiculous, because you’re an ex-Communist, ex-nomenclature billionaire.

“But in some ways the demand for a broad movement of the centre, which Babiš represents, and which Civic Forum represented, never really went away.

“And I guess the last reason is that people are very frustrated with the performance of the established parties.

“In particular corruption has proved to be absolutely toxic for them, although the Civic Democrats have made a modest revival.

“The anti-corruption card has been a powerful one for Babiš and for other populists as well.”

How would you characterise the actual politics of ANO? Is ‘populist’ too simple?

“Well, it depends what you mean by ‘populist’. Populist is often used as a sort of synonym for being on the radical right.

“And I think though there are questions we can ask about Mr. Babiš’s democratic values, his populism is, let’s say, a technocratic populism.

“It’s populist in the sense that he says that he’s an outsider, established elites are all really collusive, there isn’t much difference between them, they haven’t delivered and he will come in from the outside with his business acumen and sort things out.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“That’s a very typical populist construction of politics. Sometimes it has a kind of radical right nationalist flavour. Sometimes as in Southern Europe, with Podemos [in Spain] and Syriza in Greece, it has a radical left flavour.

“And sometimes, and in Babiš’s case, it has what I think we can only really call a centrist and technocratic set of policies.

“So if you read ANO’s programme, or if you read Babiš’s book, his vision is really one that is technocratic.

“It’s about fixing the state, it’s about centralising the state and making it more powerful. And then it’s about a very variegated set of policies, from smart motorways to e-government to collecting rain water to building more sports stadiums.

“So it’s a ragbag of technocratic policies, often focusing on the public administration and packaged up in this kind of familiar populist language of taking on established parties.”

Before the elections in October there were many reports about Babiš calling him the ‘Czech Trump’ and there were suggestions that he could be a threat to the European Union. You wrote at the time that that portrayal of Babiš was being overplayed.

“Yes. The ‘Czech Trump’ label was wide of the mark. There are parallels – he’s a billionaire, he’s a rich man who’s gotten into politics, he created his own party, he has a populist style – but that exists elsewhere.

“We’ve had Berlusconi and in Austria there was Frank Stronach. So rich men do go into politics and the populist card is often a good one for them to play.

“I think with Babiš there are reasons to be concerned about the kind of political system he would like to establish.”

“I think with Andrej Babiš there are reasons to be concerned about the kind of political system he would like to establish.

“He’s written in his book that he’d like to strip away a lot of checks and balances: abolish the Senate, abolish the regions, abolish elected councils.

“And he’s very clearly someone who has no patience for the kind of give and take and negotiations which are really what make democratic politics work, although they’re not very attractive to look at.

“On the other hand, he isn’t an illiberal nationalist, although he taps into that language, and at the moment he’s very far away from being able to make the kind of constitutional changes, or even to pass the kind of laws, that the governments of Poland or Hungary have been able to pass.

“So I think it’s a question of watch this space. It’s a question of how Czech institutions and the Czech electorate will manage Babiš.

“And I think in keeping him well short of a majority they may have inadvertently – and through all kinds of voting in different directions – made a wise choice.”

Babiš is currently attempting to form a minority government with the blessing of President Zeman. How do you see the situation playing out now?

Tomio Okamura,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“It’s very difficult. He clearly needs to have at least three other parties on board to the extent that they will leave the Chamber of Deputies to allow him to win a vote of confidence.

“I think we’re in a kind of territory similar to that we were in with the first Topolánek government in 2006, when we’re going to have a very drawn-out period and where the first attempt to inaugurate a government with a vote of confidence is not going to be successful.

“So I think we’re in for quite a long period of manoeuvring.

“There is, of course, the prospect that Miloš Zeman has raised that he might just leave a government without a majority pretty much to govern for four years, which, on paper, the Constitution might let him do, and perhaps if that was challenged it might not.

“So I think we’re in for a very extended process of government formation.”

How do you view the possibility that Babiš may agree to a bill on referendums as a sop to Okamura [of Freedom and Direct Democracy], and what that could possibly lead to?

“I think that really depends on what the bill says, how binding the referendums are who can initiate them.

“It would certainly be for him a possible route to by-pass institutions such as the Senate, which he feels are not necessary anyway.

“But I think that we have to bear in mind that that would need votes. It would need to get through the lower house, which I think it would do, and then it would have get through the upper house, and there I think it might falter.

“The dark horse in the presidential election could be Miroslav Topolánek.”

“So we will have to see. I think if I was Babiš I would be offering Okamura relatively little.”

What about foreign policy? What do you say to the suggestion that the real litmus test for Czech foreign policy and orientation will be January’s presidential elections?

“I think they will matter, but I think they will matter for domestic reasons, in particular if we are still – as I think we are likely to be – trying to get a government in place.

“A new president would change the situation and would change it almost certainly to Babiš’s disadvantage.

“I think in foreign policy terms the president’s role is more symbolic than real in making Czech foreign policy.

“Miloš Zeman and before him president Klaus have given the Czech Republic a certain image, but one that’s actually rather removed from its real foreign policy, which has been set by the foreign minister.

“So I think it would be more a matter of the Czech Republic’s profile than it being a real litmus test.

“I think it’s the foreign ministry that will make the policy. And there I don’t see Babiš as having a very radical or distinct foreign policy agenda.

“And indeed to a great extent he doesn’t seem to have any foreign policy at all.”

Miroslav Topolánek,  photo:
I don’t know if you’re a betting man, but do you think President Zeman will be re-elected in January?

“Yes, is the short answer. I think it would be a reasonable bet.

“There’s only one real candidate opposing him [Jiří Drahoš], who seems to be behind him in the polls, who is an independent, relatively untested.

“I think the dark horse in the presidential election, someone who you might put a few crowns on, could be Miroslav Topolánek, if he can get the signatures together.

“He’s a rather discredited figure in some ways, but I guess, rather like Zeman, it’s just possible that he could come out of leftfield and spring a surprise.

“It’s certainly conceivable that Zeman could lose. If we look at Slovakia, Robert Fico was seen as a shoo-in for president and only succeeded in uniting all of those voters who disliked him against him in the second round.

“But I think I would put my money, or most of it, on Zeman.”