On the campaign trail ahead of this weekend’s general election in the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis nailed his anti-immigration credentials to the mast by parading around his apparent friend, his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban.
In early September, the pair met in Budapest before traveling together to Hungary’s border fence with Serbia, built after the 2015 migrant crisis. Babis vowed to support Orban’s anti-immigration efforts by possibly sending a few hundred Czech soldiers to patrol the border fence. “There is no will in the EU to protect the border,” he stated,
A few weeks later, Orban joined Babis on the campaign trail in Usti nad Laben, the northern Czech city where Babis is running for the local seat. "We push for our national interests together" in the EU, Babis said after introducing Orban at a joint news conference, to which several journalists were forcibly denied entrance.
On the surface, they appear to be odd bedfellows. Babis was born in what is now Slovakia and what before 1917 was “Upper Hungary”, an area of interest in Orban’s irredentist ideal to restore “Greater Hungary”.
Orban’s government has described itself as a “Christian democracy,” whereas Babis governs Europe's second-least religious country, according to the latest Pew Research surveys.
Orban’s Fidesz party now rules over Hungary in what analysts describe as a “soft autocracy” or “competitive authoritarianism”. But Babis’ ruling ANO party barely survived as a minority government after 2018 and has frequently been challenged by the Czech constitution.
In the EU, Babis’ ANO party is in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe bloc, which has taken strong stances against Orban’s attacks on rule of law.
Despite all that, Babis has asserted on many occasions that he considers Orban a close friend, and a friend who can help the incumbent Czech Prime Minister on the election trail, said Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University.
“Babis needs support in the election campaign and Orban is somebody who [is seen as] successfully fighting immigration, an important topic of ANO’s campaign,” Kopecek added.
During a meeting between the two prime ministers in 2018, Babis also sought to burnish his anti-immigration credentials. “I think that it was the two of us, most of all Mr. Orban, who first critically highlighted the problem of migration and quotas in Europe,” he said.
Kopecek added that it is now also difficult to get a well-known European politician to attend an ANO campaign rally and “Orban is one of a few exceptions.”
A recent European Commission audit found Babis to be in conflict of interest over his vast Agrofert conglomerate taking EU subsidies. Investigations into Babis’ alleged corrupt activities are also active in the Czech Republic.
Additional controversy was sparked this month when the Pandora Paper leaks raised questions about how Babis purchased a €15 million mansion in the south of France
Babis is seeking a second term in office but faces an uphill battle as his current political partners are expected to lose seats or even fail to enter parliament, which could leave him scrambling around for new allies after this weekend’s ballot.
Reports suggest that he may have to depend on the country’s two main illiberal parties, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) - tipped to come fourth with between 10-11% of the vote - and the far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), which has informally backed Babis’ government in parliament since 2018.
However, there are suspicions that Babis sees Orban as more than just a useful anti-migrant icon to bring out for an election speech.
Babis has always wanted to “centralize power and strip out checks and balances,” said Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London.
“He clearly admired Orban’s ability to be a disrupter who can make decisions and govern Hungary without the need to consult with coalition partners or deal with independent institutions,” he added.
His fondness for Orban’s style of politics wasn’t overlooked by his political rivals. “[Orban] liquidates free media, liquidates the opposition, free enterprise, spies on journalists... Such policy is the model for Andrej Babis,” Ivan Bartos, leader of the rival Pirates and Mayors alliance, said social media post after the Babis-Orban meeting last month.
On the eve of the elections, all eyes are also on another Czech politician who has a much longer friendship with Orban, President Milos Zeman, who will play a decisive role in what is expected to be a close-fought ballot.
Zeman shares pro-China and pro-Russia sentiments with Orban, and both are known for their illiberal rhetoric. In June, Zeman sparked controversy for calling transgender people “disgusting” and for defending a recent law passed in Hungary which bans the public portrayal of homosexuality. “I don't see any reason to disagree with him,” Zeman said of Orban’s law.
Although Babis’ ANO party is leading in the polls, it will likely fail to win enough seats to govern alone and its current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (CSSD), are projected to either not enter parliament at all or lose seats in the lower chamber.
Zeman, whose state of health is also a source of debate on the eve of the election, has already intimated that he wants Babis to form the next government.
“Zeman is going to appoint Babis the prime minister, even if Babis finishes second, because Zeman insists that electoral coalitions are not legitimate,” Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and a director of New York University’s Prague campus, told Euronews last month.
According to the latest opinion polls, the two new political alliances formed this year - SPOLU and the Pirates and Mayors - are expected to finish second and third, respectively.
Czechs and balances
As head of state, Zeman is tasked with appointing an incoming prime minister who must then go to parliament to receive a vote of confidence. Without ANO’s current partners, that might be an uphill struggle.
Zeman has reportedly pressed Babis to accept an informal deal with the far-right SPD, which may agree to back ANO informally in parliament, as the KSCM has done since 2018.
If that fails, Zeman could allow Babis to stay on as prime minister without parliament’s backing, unleashing a constitutional crisis that may last more than a year, perhaps even until the next presidential election in January 2023.
“In theory there is nothing to stop Zeman keeping Babis on as a caretaker prime minister by failing to nominate another prime minister for an extended period,” said Hanley, of University College London.
Opposition leaders have threatened that, if this happens, they will try to remove Zeman from office through a motion in the Senate. But the outcome of such an attempt is uncertain and would likely take months to be debated by the Constitutional Court.
“If Babis ends up in a coalition or similar which means it is politic for him to play up his centrist, pragmatic and reformist credentials, we would see and hear a lot less of his admiration for Orban,” said Hanley.
But, he added, if Babis finds himself in a struggle for power and feels that he has to take control over institutions in a much more aggressive way to defend his own interests, “we might see a degree of ‘Orbanization’”.