In the days leading up to the October 8-9 general election in the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis faced renewed scrutiny over alleged corruption.
Babis, the second-richest person in the Czech Republic and who the European Commission recently found to be in conflict of interest over his business dealings, is now under pressure to explain a convoluted offshore structure he used to purchase a €15m mansion in the south of France, as disclosed in the “Pandora Papers”, the largest ever trove of leaked offshore data.
During a televised election debate at the weekend, he blamed the “Czech mafia” for the allegations surrounding a house purchase that he said dated back to 2009. On Sunday night, he tweeted that he thought the reports were intentionally published days ahead of next weekend’s general election to undermine his campaign.
In recent months, Babis’ ruling ANO party has soared in the polls. Its support dwindled to near-record lows in early 2021 because of the Czech Republic’s woeful pandemic record, when it had one of the world’s highest infection rates per capita.
But ANO’s popularity has recovered as most lockdown measures were lifted in the summer and infection numbers remain relatively low.
The latest survey by STEM, a local pollster, gives ANO 27.3% of the vote, about six percentage points ahead of the second-place SPOLU alliance, formed earlier this year by three parties including the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), currently the largest opposition party.
The STEM poll also puts the anti-corruption Prisaha (or “Oath”) party in sixth place with 5.7% of the vote, its biggest tally in months and enough for it to enter parliament.
The election on October 8-9 is expected to be tightly fought. No clear winner is projected and some analysts forecast a protracted post-election standoff between the main parties, as each makes an attempt to form a government. A full-blown constitutional crisis is possible.
The new party trying to keep corruption in Czech
One of the biggest developments could be the success of Prisaha, formed earlier this year by a retired investigator of organised crime, Robert Slachta.
It is one of a new breed of single-issue, anti-corruption parties that have sprung up in recent years across Central and Eastern Europe.
At last year’s general election in neighbouring Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, the anti-corruption Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO) party came out of nowhere to win the ballot, starting an anti-graft campaign that has seen a widespread clearout of the Slovak bureaucracy and judiciary.
Ivana Karaskova, from the Association for International Affairs in Prague, said that anti-corruption narratives have a long history in Czech politics.
“ANO has won elections based on a pretence that Babiš is not a part of the establishment and that he would deal with [a] corrupted political elite,” she said, referring to the party’s victory at the 2017 election when it campaigned heavily on an anti-corruption platform.
“Corruption as a topic, either the real one or imaginary, seems to resonate well with the electorate and Prisaha is just one of the political subjects which discovered that,” Karaskova said.
The Czech Republic was ranked last in an evaluation of 42 countries by the Council of Europe's anti-corruption body, GRECO, for not following its recommendations since 2019. It was also ranked 49th worst out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index.
According to the same organisation’s Global Corruption Barometer report, published in June, some 69% of Czechs said their government performed badly at tackling corruption, the third-worst score in the EU. In late 2019, more than 300,000 Czechs demonstrated against Babis’ alleged corruption in what were the largest protests since the fall of communism in 1989.
According to the latest opinion polls, Prisaha now commands more support than most of the other small parties and could even beat the Social Democrats (CSSD), the country’s once-dominant centre-left outfit that could this year fail to win seats in parliament.
Slachta came to public attention as the head of the Unit for Combating Organised Crime, and his investigations into official corruption brought down the coalition government of Prime Minister Petr Necas in 2013. His autobiography, Thirty Years Under Oath, from which his new party takes its name, was a best-seller when it was published last year.
But question marks remain over whether Prisaha can maintain its position over the coming week, especially as pollsters find that roughly a third of voters are still undecided.
“Prisaha has voters whose relationship to the party is very weak and uncertain,” noted Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University.
Analysts reckon that many of Prisaha’s early supporters were former voters for the ruling ANO party, which dwindled in the opinion polls for most of 2021.
A recent survey by Kantar CZ and Data Collect, two local pollsters, asserted that Prisaha has an electoral potential of up to 9.5 per cent, higher than the current opinion polls that are slightly skewed by the significant number of non-committed voters among the Czech electorate.
There is also some doubt whether a single-issue party led by a charismatic figure is the proper way to go about fighting endemic corruption.
“Corruption is a strong theme in Czech politics and Czech democracy is still quite immature,” said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and a director of New York University´s Prague campus. “So enough people are still attracted by parties led by strongmen, who promise to use their power to fight corruption and other social ills,” he added.
The corruption allegations against Czech PM Andrej Babis
What’s more, without a change of leadership in the Czech Republic analysts reckon there will be little progress in anti-corruption efforts.
“Elections and political will are the bases on which an anti-corruption drive starts”, said Richard Q. Turcsanyi, an Assistant Professor at Mendel University in Brno.
If Babis is elected again and President Milos Zeman is willing to protect him, it’s very difficult to imagine any success for an anti-corruption drive against people connected to the leadership, he added.
For years analysts have alleged that President Zeman, who is also dogged by corruption allegations, has pulled some strings to stop investigations into Babis’ business affairs. Zeman has also already said that he will allow Babis the chance to form the next government, even if one of the two opposition alliances wins the upcoming election.
Most allegations against Babis stem from his ownership of the conglomerate Agrofert, one of the Czech Republic’s largest firms. In the past, Czech police investigated alleged misuse of EU subsidies to finance the “Stork's Nest” hotel-resort owned by Agrofert, although these have stalled.
In April this year, a European Commission audit found that Babis had breached the bloc’s conflict-of-interest rules when his company was paid EU subsidies while he was prime minister.
It found that he still directed the firm’s decisions despite him formally putting his assets into blind trust funds, and Agrofert was ordered to repay €17m in subsidies it had taken from the European bloc.
This could have major ramifications for the Czech Republic since the European Commission intimated earlier this year that it could face delays in accessing vital EU funds until the government makes progress on its anti-graft efforts. The Czech Republic has been a net beneficiary of EU funds since it joined the bloc in 2004.
It could also have wider ramifications for Babis himself. Analysts have speculated that if ANO loses power after next weekend’s election, the next government could restart domestic police investigations into Babis’ Agrofert and his alleged corrupt dealings.
Although his ANO party is widely tipped to win the election that starts on Friday, it is highly unlikely to win enough seats in parliament to be able to rule alone and its current allies are fading in the polls.
The Social Democrats, the junior partner in ANO’s ruling coalition since 2018, are on only 4.4% of the vote, which would mean the party fails to enter parliament for the first time ever, according to the latest STEM poll.
After 2018, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) backed up Babis’ minority government in parliament but it withdrew its support earlier this year and there’s no guarantee of it backing ANO again. The KSCM is currently polling on around 6.5% of the vote, according to STEM, down from the 7.8% it won at the last general election, which means it could control fewer parliamentary seats come next week.
The Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) has said it won’t cooperate with Babis, and he would face a considerable backlash if he tries to form an alliance with the controversial far-right party, which is polling at around 12%. None of the other smaller parties that would likely ally with Babis are expected to win seats in parliament.
Rumours also abound that Babis could try to cut a post-election deal with one of the larger opposition parties if he isn’t able to form a stable government. The centre-right ODS might agree to work in coalition with ANO on the condition that Babis does not remain prime minister, Karaskova told Euronews in an earlier-published article. This could come with the tacit promise of clemency for Babis.
“Babis is scared,” said a source close to the current cabinet, who requested anonymity. “He knows that if he loses the election, he could also lose his freedom.”
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