EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

The Czech Republic is currently facing a political crisis that has, to say the least, left both political analysts and Czech citizens confounded. To sum the situation up, on May 2, the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka announced that the resignation of the whole government because of the inability of the finance minister Andrej Babiš to satisfactorily explain to the Parliament his misuse of bonds with a nominal value of one crown, which constitutes tax avoidance. As Babiš consequently refused to tender his resignation, Sobotka opted for offering the government’s resignation, in part due to his government’s integrity being undermined with Babiš still in power, but also to shed light on the deeds of Mr. Babiš. According to the Czech Constitution, the President holds the decisive role in case of such an event: he may or may not accept the offered resignation, just as it is also his privilege to appoint the new Prime Minister, who can then create a new cabinet. Unfortunately, it then became impossible to predict the next steps the President will take and when Sobotka went to the Castle just to consult with the president on current developments, he was welcomed as if he was about to hand the resignation in front at an impromptu press conference. What followed could have been a great scene of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, but in reality looked more like a bizarre tragedy. Not only did Sobotka have to explain in front of the journalists that he did not come to resign, but the president further humiliated him by turning his back to him in the middle of his speech and leaving the room.

As result of this, Sobotka decided to pull back the resignation of his government as a whole, and called for the dismissal of the finance minister instead. The reply of the president was perhaps not a surprising one: he announced through his spokesperson that he does not intend to rush, and that he will decide about this proposal no sooner than after his return from the One Belt, One Road conference in China on the May 19. He also added that the dismissal of the finance minister would mean the breach of the government’s coalition agreement.

Meanwhile, the scandals surrounding Mr. Babiš have only intensified ever since. A tape surfaced in which Babiš allegedly discusses with a journalist of a newspaper he owns which negative stories should be published about his political and governmental opponents. While he refused to acknowledge the content of this recording, he claimed that it was part of a political game against him and was scandalized that he, as a vice premier, was being followed, claiming it to be the work of an intelligence agency under the Interior Ministry. Three days later, another recording was published in which Babiš speaks with the same journalist again, this time discussing ongoing police investigations which should have been kept confidential among police forces. The discussion is centred mainly on transcripts of interrogations and how could they possibly impact his political opponents if released.

While Mr. Babiš refuses to resign despite mounting evidence of these actions, people have taken to the streets in Prague and other Czech cities, and the Senate has started discussing the opportunity of taking the President in front of the Constitutional Court if he continues to refuse accepting the dismissal of Babiš, in opposition with his constitutional duties.

The members of the ANO party, which Babiš founded, mostly stand behind their leader. If Babiš has to step down as minister of finance, the party has already proposed a new name for this position: Mrs. Schillerová, currently Babiš’ deputy at the ministry. Sobotka however turned her down on Monday due to her close ties with ANO, which he perceives as problematic and because he wants to remove any conflict of interest from the Ministry. He claims that in order for the Financial Inspection’s investigation to be an independent one, the finance minister should be independent of Babiš as well. Finally, this Wednesday, Sobotka accepted the proposal to nominate Ivan Pilný, another ANO member, thereby concluding the whole affair by a partisan compromise.

It is surprising, to say the least, that the Prime Minister announced the resignation of the government in early May. First because the timing of ousting Babiš from the government seems odd, considering they have cooperated, albeit reluctantly, for almost four years already, with elections looming later this year. Furthermore, using Babis’ conflicts of interests as the reason to do seems illegitimate at this point because there have been several of them from the very beginning, not simply tax avoidance. It also seems like a desperate gamble that the decision was made for strategic reasons because of the upcoming elections, partially because The Czech Republic suffers from high levels of voter apathy, a general lack of democratic participation, all factors diminishing the outrage that Sobotka would rightly benefit from in a Western country. Even more disturbing, Babis may potentially even reap support from this, having correctly remarked that “nobody in this country loves to pay taxes”, and that only few people would scold somebody for paying the smallest amount possible. Therefore, it seems like a far-fetched idea that the problem of tax avoidance could diminish the popularity of ANO and its leader. Andrej Babiš ranked as the most popular figure in the Czech political scene in April despite being investigated for fraud by the European Union and clear conflicts of interests over his influence on media.

However, assuming that the last string of events will cause his popularity to plummet, the question remains whether this change has the same consequences for ANO. Will the party be able to win the next parliamentary elections or will it lose its current margin in the polls? Is ANO really a one-man party and project originally conceived just to further empower Babiš, or a genuine political movement whose causes are larger than its leader’s? Some members of the party are indeed capable and accomplished, but are they truly greater – and fighting for something greater – than the sum of their parts?

As the investigations proceed and more incriminating details on Babis are known, the party will have to tackle the question of whether it is essentially a personality-cult, or a genuine political movement defending important causes.

Will ANO resist the temptation of siding with Babis, who is still popular and favourite to become the next Prime Minister in spite of overwhelming incriminating evidence, or will it choose integrity? Babis casts a particularly large shadow, one that he can never truly escape, yet the party does have a choice. The coming months will decide whether ANO becomes a genuine movement, or degrades itself to playing the same politics the movement has so heavily criticized and tried to distinguish itself from since its inception.

In hindsight, while it initially seemed like there was no way for Sobotka to gain anything by submitting the government’s resignation, he actually managed against all expectations to make lemonade from the lemons. He earned sympathy by being seen as a victim of an unreasonable, petty president, and managed in the end to pull off his gambit successfully with Babiš giving up his post as Finance Minister. However, whether or not this was his original plan seems inconsequential considering the Sisyphean task ahead of him: he is now locked in a struggle with both President Zeman on one side, and Babis on the other, a fight he is all but destined to lose in the end. He may have won a small victory, but a Pyrrhic one perhaps. In all likelihood, the next parliamentary election will bring the victory of the ANO party, and so even if Babiš resigns now, he will likely return as the next Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in the fall.

Hanka Fridrichová

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