Babis under fire in Czech election weekReading Time: 3 minutes
Corruption allegations against prime minister Andrej Babis are dominating the headlines in Czechia as its citizens prepare to go to the polls on Friday and Saturday. Already reeling from his ANO party’s fall in support during September – from 32.4% to 27.3%, according to pollster STEM – the oligarch turned populist politician was then forced to appear on television and deny reports of an illegal property purchase in 2009. “Of course not… the money had been taxed”, Babis told CNN Prima News, when asked about the covert USD22 million (EUR19 million) purchase of a French Riviera estate, laid bare in the recent Pandora Papers global expose.
It is yet to be seen how Babis’s supporters will respond. The premier is already being investigated for a possible conflict of interest regarding his agriculture, chemistry, food and media holding Agrofert receiving millions of euros in EU subsidies. Moreover STEM has generally registered higher support for ANO than other pollsters in recent months. Whether or not ANO rides out the storm to win the elections on Friday and Saturday (8-9 October), Babis will face an uphill battle to form a majority parliamentary coalition.
The two party alliances that represent Babis’s main rivals – Spolu and Pirates-STAN – have both said they will not work with Babis on any terms. The Spolu alliance (who were polling at 21.4% in the last week of September) consists of the Eurosceptic conservative ODS (Civic Democrats), TOP 09, which was founded by aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg and one-time Christian Democrats leader Miroslav Kalousek and KDU-CSL (Christian Democrats). The respective leaders of Spolu are Petr Fiala (ODS), Marketa Pekarova Adamova (TOP 09) and Marian Jurecka (KDU-CSL). The “Mayors” alliance of the liberal Pirates party and centrists STAN (17.4%) is led by the dreadlocked Ivan Bartos and progressive mayor Martin Rakusan. Bartos often emphasises that Czechia should be Western-Europe-oriented and revive plans for Euro adoption.
Right-wing president Milos Zeman will play a significant role in forming a cabinet and has said the individual with the most votes will lead talks on the next administration, meaning Babis will likely get the first chance to create a government. It won’t be easy. ANO’s junior partner CSSD (Social Democrats) – ruling in minority government with ANO and outside support from the Communist KSCM since 2018 – have fallen below the 5% parliamentary threshold. KSCM is meanwhile polling at a precarious 6.5%. Another party just above that threshold is the newly formed populist Prisaha (Oath) party (5.7%), led by the vocal state-corruption critic and ex-detective Robert Slachta. The success of CSSD, KSCM and Prisaha will be crucial to Babis’s chances of forming a cabinet. Another potential coalition partner is the far right SPD, led by populist Tomio Okamura, which ran an anti-migrant campaign and is currently polling at 12.3%, according to STEM’s data.
Whether Babis will be able to form a government is uncertain and the geopolitical orientation of his cabinet will also depend on which parties achieve the parliamentary threshold. The premier sees the advantages of Czechia’s European Union membership, but this could change quickly: Babis’s business is reliant on EU subsidies, and the corruption and conflict of interest allegations could endanger this source. Moreover, several potential coalition partners – KSCM, SPD and Prisaha – are largely Eurosceptic and emphasize national interests.
The elections on Friday and Saturday therefore represent a possible face-off between pro-European and nativist sentiments. If the Spolu and Pirates-STAN alliances are able to form a cabinet, Czechia will be led by a pro-EU government with a mix of liberal and conservative policies. A Czech coalition led by Babis and mainly composed of populists would be considerably less predictable.