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In general, Pavel we trust?

Weighing in on the 2023 Czech presidential election, the spectres of populism, and why NATO probably won’t save us.

I’d known, of course, that the extent to which I would be focused on British politics once I’d moved out of Britain would change. I knew I would be paying more attention to the continental side of Brexit, the latest changes in tax and trade policy, the myriad scare columns in Remainer papers about white-collar bods missing their residence permit extension deadlines by four days and getting deported (ja, du hører mig). I knew that as I spent more time focusing on what Brexit implied for me as a UK national living in Europe, I’d find some horrible sense of comfort in knowing I’d avoid the brunt of its consequences at home, among them the cost-of-living crisis. Fat fucking chance. Inflation in the Czech Republic was measured at 15.8% at the end of 2022, while GDP growth is among the lowest in the EU at 1.9%. Both numbers are expected to fall over the next year. On top of this, macro effects of the war happening two doors down are biting hard. Bills are rising, wages are stagnating, and apparent promises made by the European Parliament since 2020 to include more public interest clauses in deals made between governments and energy multinationals are looking to be worth less than the paper they were printed on, with the current line from senior MEPs being, “More domestic fossil fuel infrastructure, yeah?” Shocker.

Two weeks ago, the second round of the 2023 Czech presidential election was held, which seems like an ideal place to start.

In October 2021, billionaire media mogul and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš met a surprise defeat at the legislative election, his first as incumbent since forming a minority government in 2017. Major opinions polls had more or less concurred to predict another victory for his populist party ANO 2011—an acronym for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens,” which happens to spell “YES” in Czech—but while the party did win the largest number of seats, ANO 2011 failed to win re-election. By a margin of 0.66%, a coalition government was formed of two alliances, the centre-right SPOLU and the liberal-progressive Pirates and Mayors.

This change in government seemed to reaffirm two things. The first was that trying to shore up widespread left-wing support in a former Eastern Bloc country is a bit like trying to teach a pig to sing. In 2017, the progressivist Pirate Party won 22 seats; in 2021, they lost all but 4. Owing to what some have considered a failure to detect or act on growing conservatism in their voter base, the Pirates’ endorsement and partnership with the centrist Mayors and Independents party spelled their demise as thousands of voters jumped ship, handing the Mayors 33 of the 37 seats in their alliance. The second was that populism looked to be dying a death in the West.

Who is Andrej Babiš, then?

Squinting into the sun with his own ghost.

Born in Bratislava, Babiš entered international trade in 1978 with a position at petrochemical trading company Petrimex. He joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ) in 1980, and represented Petrimex in Morocco from 1985 to 1991. During this time, he is alleged to have collaborated with the KSČ State Security agency, StB, something he has denied since at least 2012, when he went so far as to sue one of his accusers—the Slovak National Memory Institute—for defamation. In a protracted trial which reached a resolution almost six years later, Babiš was ruled to have served as an agent in the StB, where his opponents claim he forged connections with Russian businesspeople to enrich himself after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Whether Babiš intended to register as an StB agent remains unclear—at least in the eyes of his own newspapers.

1989—the bloodless Velvet Revolution sees Czechoslovakia democratise. 1993—the country amicably dissolves into two independent states. Babiš settles in the Czech Republic and takes up a new position as managing director of agrochemical logistics conglomerate Agrofert, a subsidiary of Pertrimex. 1995—Babiš becomes embroiled in a stock dilution scandal at Agrofert. Petrimex sack him, sue him, and lose. After a brief hiatus, Babiš returns as 100% owner of Agrofert. The means by which he completes this deal are unclear, but probably (definitely) have something to do with opaque funding received from an obscure Swiss capitalisation form called OFI, whose owners Babiš has claimed to have become friendly with while studying in Geneva. Details surrounding the takeover remain scant to this day.

Since acquiring Agrofert, Babiš has set about repeating this magic act on smaller competitors, establishing an effective monopoly over the Czech agrochemical industry which has made him one of the wealthiest individuals in Central Europe. Babiš has diversified his empire too, buying up media outlets like Radio Impuls, which records the highest listenership in the country, Lidové noviny, the oldest circulating Czech newspaper, and MF DNES, the second-largest Czech tabloid. This bloc of client journalists has been instrumental to Babiš throughout his political career, either outright absolving him of blame for some of his more egregious controversies or otherwise ignoring the flack. For obvious reasons, Babiš’ conflicting interests have been a major point of criticism for opposition parties, and his hardline anti-corruption rhetoric has been met with a near-universal scepticism from those with no vested interest in ANO 2011 victories. A taste of his own rhetorical medicine, one might even say…

Prior to 2017, political power in the Czech Republic had been rallied between the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD). Both parties have been beleaguered by accusations of mismanagement and cronyism since democratic elections began in 1990—Babiš having made a good chunk of these—but in 2013 a massive bribery scandal blew ODS open, bringing about the resignation of PM Petr Nečas and the ejection of the party from government in a snap election. The ČSSD formed a coalition with ANO 2011, providing Babiš with the perfect route to consolidating his public image against a corrupt “old guard.” Babiš represented an alternative for those tired of the blood sports of partisanship, a beacon of economic sense who presided over a rise in minimum wage, a fall in unemployment, and a healthy and much-desired populist attitude in the wake of the Financial Crisis. It paid off, too. In 2017, after four years of coalition, ANO came through with 78 seats, having clearly captured the imaginations of those who felt they had been disenfranchised from Prague-centric metropolitanism. ČSSD, meanwhile, were neutered. The party lost two thirds of their mandate and, in 2021, all of their remaining 15 seats. In stark contrast to the dithering and vacillating of the two major parties, Babiš and ANO promised to get things done, to build and strengthen, to improve living standards, and to deal with those meddlesome migrants swarming in through the Mediterranean. Hang about--

Babiš had good publicists—having your own media empire helps—and paid attention to public opinion, an area where ČSSD fumbled the bag in a massive way. He took advantage of rising nationalism, Euroscepticism and xenophobia while the continent was in the throes of the Syrian refugee crisis. He envisioned running the Czech Republic like a business, assuming the role of a charismatic managing director, much in the same way as he had done at Agrofert. He intended to be viewed as a pragmatic nationalist, taking a hard stance against the inefficacy of globalism, and he claimed credit for many of the country’s turnarounds in economic fortune to consolidate that image. His associates in business and politics—as well as in the opposition, including ČSSD—were experienced state security specialists, Cold War counterintelligence officers, financial investigators, some of whom had known Babiš in a legal capacity before his venture into politics. He surrounded himself with power, insight, and the threat of information. One opposition MP remarked that no one need prove Babiš’ former ties to StB in the courts. His conduct in selecting his friends has demonstrated more than enough.

Describing Babiš as “the Czech Trump” (like the New Statesman did in 2017) is a simplification for the sake of rationalising such a figure to Western audiences. What Babiš has constructed over the course of his career—his wealth, his media empire, his political character—is all symptomatic of the pervasive opportunism which has dominated Central and Eastern Europe since liberalisation. This opportunism, unafraid of employing subterfuge and prejudice to the ends of accumulating influence, does align Babiš with right-wing figureheads like Trump, Bolsonaro, or Marine Le Pen, to some extent, but it sets him apart, as well—given that he has about as much conviction as the Antarctic penal system. To start with, Babiš operates outside of conventional Western paradigms of elitism. The communist era saw a stratified class system in Czechoslovakia more or less eroded, and when Babiš rails against Brussels in his press conferences, one can assume he doesn’t envisage some grand, revitalising isolationist project as an alternative—his warm associations with foreign nationalist leaders like Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán suggest as much.

The fact is that all the tactics which another conservative populist might use to their ideological advantage just spell out, in big block capitals, square on the forehead: CHANCER. Babiš’ populism took advantage of the disenfranchisement of a suburban and rural lower middle class to get him into the top job. Defining a “lower middle class,” though, remains difficult in a country where correlations between education, employment and income seem conjectural at best and nonexistent at worst. The effective collapse of ČSSD, who for all their faults were representing the interests of the working class (at least nominally), has left disenfranchised centrist-populists with little choice but to vote ANO. Socialist Petr Mateju has claimed that there is no representative party for the interests of a middle class in the Czech Republic, since these people “don’t have time to associate; they have to earn their living.” The idea of an “elite”—whether ODS, ČSSD, or Brussels—serves to estrange voters from seeing Babiš’ aspiration to oligarchy for what it is. Babiš saw opportunity in the money bin of free market capitalism, the “Wild East,” and has spent his entire subsequent political career attempting to problematise the nouveau riche as a realistic category in Czech socioeconomic life. This, then, is what absolves him in the eyes of the electorate. Classic. Moises Naim once described populism as “a strategy to obtain and retain power [...] propelled by the digital revolution, precarious outcomes, and the threatening insecurity of what lies ahead.” Populism thrives on instability, on the chances taken in chaotic times by a scavenging few. The death of the Eastern Bloc was the birth of homogeneous faith in the Western ideal of “democratic” capitalism. No surprise that the hungry took their pieces of the pie.

It would be irresponsible to call Babiš vacant of political intent, though. In recent years, his implication in a number of financial controversies have destabilised his safe haven of expediency. In 2021, for instance, he was named in the Pandora Papers leak, having reportedly funnelled money into an offshore account to avoid paying tax on sixteen properties in the French Riviera. While this more or less glanced off him, Babiš fought another legal battle with the European Anti-Fraud Office between 2017 and 2023, accused of having defrauded the EU of €2 million in small business subsidies through his ownership of a conference centre—the Storks’ Nest. Financial crime investigators requested Babiš’ parliamentary immunity be lifted in order to investigate the case, and in 2018 his own son claimed Babiš had had him kidnapped and held in hotels around Crimea to obstruct an inquiry into the affair. Babiš survived a vote of no confidence after this debacle. A more recent scandal involved Babiš making a number of public appearances with Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, as part of his 2021 re-election campaign. Babiš went so far as to send letters to prospective voters, wherein he referred to Orbán as “your friend,” and alluded to a fr relationship between their two countries. In Hungary, Orbán has overseen some of the worst curtailments of civil rights in the EU, especially with regard to press freedoms, and his association with Babiš was perceived by many as indicative of a very worrying trajectory for the Czech Republic.

Oh dear, oh dear.

The list goes on and on, but the main thing to take away is that Babiš dominated Czech politics as a symbol of rampant abuse of influence for almost pure individual gains. If he was associating with questionable global leaders, he was willing to do so in order to further his own influence. And he remained the most popular politician in the country while doing so. Babiš lost by a slim, slim margin in 2021. This is not something to celebrate wholeheartedly.

So what’s the craic now?

After leaving office, Babiš embarked on a presidential campaign that would be best described thus, and he was pipped to win for a period, until…

Smoke me a kipper—I’ll be president by breakfast.

Enter General Petr Pavel. Former Czech Armed Forces. Massive NATO lad. Genetic predisposition to statesmanship. Gold standard for those aiming to look like they can build a chest of drawers.

Pavel entered the race for president as an independent with no prior political experience. He served in the Czechoslovak People’s Army between 1983 and 1993, and joined the Military Intelligence wing of the Czech Armed Forces after dissolution. After his service in the Croatian War of Independence, Pavel left active duty as a decorated man, taking a number of high profile diplomatic positions in the Czech Army, the Ministry of Defence, and NATO, where he represented the Czech Republic in Brussels before being nominated Chief of the NATO Military Committee in 2014. He held the position until 2018, when he retired to lecture at the Aspen Institute.

Suffice to say, Pavel is everything Babiš isn’t—a staunch believer in the NATO project, an advocate for Western unity, an opponent to non-aligned dissidents, and a discreditor of populists. Pavel launched his campaign under the promise to restore a sense of distinction to an office many had lost faith in during the Zeman-Babiš years. To his diplomatic cohorts, this was ideal news. Pavel was on record disowning his decision to join the KSČ in 1985, admitting he had made a mistake for which loyalty to the West might constitute some sort of penance. In terms of domestic policy, Pavel has run on a platform of social and economic reform: higher rates of income tax for the highest-earners, wealth redistribution, widening recognition for same-sex couples, legalised assisted suicide, opposition to the death penalty, etc. In other words, Pavel is a beacon of trust, something the Czech electorate have been sorely missing—at least, according to his polling numbers.

After winning a slim majority in the first runoff, Pavel emerged victorious by a comfortable margin in the second round, winning 58.32% of the vote in an election which saw the highest turnout since 1990. Like Babiš, Pavel has taken advantage of popular positioning with his hardline support for Ukraine and their accession to NATO and the EU, becoming one of the more vocal heads of state in Europe on the issue. As the “sensible” candidate, Pavel is another indicator of increased Czech buying power in the EU over the next decade (if he cooperates with the current government, which he will). What does this mean in terms of policy? Not much. The president is a ceremonial office in the Czech Republic, with executive decisions the responsibility of the PM and Chamber of Deputies, but in his new role Pavel will be able to appoint Cabinet ministers, CNB board members and Constitutional Court justices, subject to Senate approval.

As a public representative, Pavel will conform to and reaffirm the idea of stable European/Western order as a normal and desirable state, part of which involves a level of hostility to multipolarity. Pavel has indicated that, as part of his “return to dignity,” he will turn the office back towards centre-right policies, towards those dodgy investment initiatives which the European Parliament seem so fond of, with the Czech Republic becoming a target for greater EU investiture and integration in the upper echelons of Union decision-making. Pavel will restore trust in the propensity of his government to cooperate with what the EU and NATO might want. If this is, in fact, the “liberal revolution” which failed to cohere in 2021, expect small state economic policy and cooperation with EU big business trade programmes. Expect green policies to diminish in political conversation, social advances to stagnate, and further escalation in Ukraine to loom. Expect the reductive notions of East and West to regroup in discourse, and for tensions between the two to worsen—see Pavel proclaiming his intent for a “hawkish” approach to Europe-China relations in the wake of his meeting with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen, just three days after winning the election.

Is Petr Pavel the right man for the job? As the Financial Times has commented, Pavel represents a wholesale change in approach from the Zeman-Babiš government. Whether this turns out to be a net positive for the Czech Republic is questionable. For Europe, though? For the EU-NATO complex? For the West? Keep watching. Na zdraví.

Sources and further reading:

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