On June 23 hundreds of thousands of Czechs assembled at one of the iconic places in Prague, Letna plain, to demonstrate against the country's Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, and recent personnel changes in his cabinet. With more than 250,000 participants, this was the largest political protest since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of both Babis and Justice Minister Marie Benesova.
This event marked yet another episode in a wider struggle between the defenders of liberal democracy and their populist foes in central and eastern Europe. Readers are most likely aware of developments in Hungary, where the battle for liberal democracy has apparently been lost, and in Poland, where skirmishes continue. But the progressive escalation in the Czech Republic deserves their attention too.
The extremist back door into government
As I wrote two years ago in Inroads, Prime Minister Babis is a billionaire of Slovak origin whose Berlusconi-style political party ANO, founded in 2011, won the last Czech legislative election in 2017. (1) Babis owns a large conglomerate, Agrofert, which has extensive agricultural, chemical and energy interests and controls a large share of the Czech media market after having acquired leading newspapers and the most popular radio station.
In the aftermath of the 2017 election, Babis struggled to build a parliamentary majority. Populist as he was, he did not want to openly collaborate with the two extremist parties in the Czech Chamber of Deputies--the far-right SPD and the Communist KSCM--as that would tarnish his image in western Europe, where many of his businesses operate. But the mainstream parties refused to enter a coalition with ANO given Babis's controversial reputation, his previous record of conflict of interest in office as Finance Minister (2013-17) and, in particular, charges he was facing for fraudulent use of European Union subsidies and tax evasion.
In January 2018 Babis's position significantly improved when pro-Russian President Milos Zeman was reelected. Both for electoral purposes (to mobilize Babis's supporters) and strategic ones (to get leverage over Babis), Zeman had promised to give Babis enough time to form a cabinet. This strategy was predicated on Zeman's securing a second presidential term, which is what happened.
In June 2018, after protracted negotiations, the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) agreed to form a minority coalition with ANO (93 of the 200 lower-house seats), tacitly supported by the Communist KSCM (which holds 15 seats). This de facto revived the ruling coalition from the previous legislature, which at that time commanded a majority. This coalition had proved poisonous for the Social Democrats. Back then, ANO capitalized on positive coverage in Babis's media and was able to successfully claim credit for strong economic growth and the CSSD-ANO coalition's generous welfare policies. While ANO's vote share sharply increased (from 18.7 per cent in 2013 to 29.6 per cent in 2017), the CSSD suffered an electoral debacle (falling from 20.5 per cent in 2013 to 7.3 per cent in 2017). Should this trend continue--and there are signs of further decline in the CSSD's...