Prof. Petr Just discusses the mass demonstration in Prague calling on Prime Minister Andrej Babis to resign. How does he stay in power, despite his lack of popularity and multiple scandals, and how does this fit into the rise of right-wing populism?
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. Last weekend, at least a quarter of a million people protested in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It was the largest demonstration since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The protest called on the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, to resign over allegations of corruption. Babis is the second richest man in the Czech Republic. He’s the sole owner of Agrofert group which owns Czech newspapers as well as agricultural, food, chemical, construction, logistics, forestry, and energy companies operating throughout Europe and in China. The Czech police, as well as European anti-fraud police, have investigated Babis and pressed charges against him for allegedly receiving an unlawful subsidy from the European Union to his company by using his connections as a politician. But as prime minister, he enjoys immunity and cannot be brought to justice, and let me add this— this is from a man who is a Eurosceptic who hates the European Union. He just likes making money off of it. This in part is why people are staging massive protests in Prague. One of the protesters spoke to Time Magazine.
CZECH PROTESTER I’m here because I don’t want our Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, to be the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. And that is because I think things like democracy, transparency, independent justice, and honesty on the whole, are very important and he does not. That’s why I’m here. Because I don’t want him as our Prime Minister.
MARC STEINER And we are joined by Professor Petr Just, who is Chair of the Department of Political Science and Humanities at the Metropolitan University of Prague. Petr, welcome. Good to have you with us here.
PETR JUST Good evening from Prague, and good afternoon to the US.
MARC STEINER Good to have you here. So talk about what happened here. I heard about these protests actually firsthand from one of our producers, our visual producer Andrew Corkery, who was just in Prague and some of the photos we’re going to see in a while are ones he took at the demonstration itself— like that one. And so, but talk about why the protest erupted now. I mean, the police recommended indicting him for fraud in April. So what’s erupting now and what’s the connection?
PETR JUST This is not the first time the protests against Andrej Babis are happening in Prague. We can remember some of the protests last year, the year before. Usually, they’re connected with some of the anniversaries or national holidays or the November 17th anniversary, but the situation we are facing right now, or the situation which is different right now from the previous ones is that there are not only some national-domestic issues that Andrej Babis is facing, but there are also issues connected with the European Union. There are the audits from the European Union coming to the Czech Republic, and they are allegedly referring to Andrej Babis as the person who has a conflict of interest and, therefore, violates both domestic but also European law. So all these situations today, they are just complementing what we already know about Andrej Babis and what has been the reasons for protests also in the past years.
MARC STEINER I’m curious, just for all of our edification as we’re watching this, I mean, what the political situation is in the Czech Republic. I mean, what’s the source of Babis’s strength? I mean, he’s been fired, removed, and a nonconfidence vote. His immunity is stripped by the Parliament. He keeps coming back as prime minister and leader. There seems to be a real split from between rural and urban, so talk a bit about what’s actually happening. Why is that what we’re seeing happening now?
PETR JUST Oh. This would be an issue for dissertation work, so it’s not easy to answer in a few minutes what are the sources of Babis’s power or Babis’s access, but we can mention a few of them. Definitely, we’ve witnessed a so-called crisis of traditional political parties. The Czech party system has been quite stable when it comes to, for example, the number of political parties that where at power since 1989 or since the early the 1990s. But of course, the more you are at power, the more you have a tendency to misuse the power. So many of the political parties that were in power since the 1990s, they started to lose the trust of the people, and this opened the space for new movements. Usually, we talk about the protest movements, populist movements, or sometimes even anti-establishment movements who are trying to challenge the longtime rulers, but longtime in the Czech context means from the early 1990s since the party system became competitive just after the fall of Communism. So the collapse of the traditional parties, the collapse of the public trust in traditional parties— traditional right-wing and traditional left-wing parties— brought to power Andrej Babis.
With his movement, the movement is called ANO, which is an abbreviation of the words Action of Dissatisfied Citizens. Even the name of the movement is supposed to reflect that it’s a, kind of, public— I would say in quotes— “uprising” against traditional parties, but in fact despite the name, despite the title “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens,” it’s a very centralized movement built by Andrej Babis and very much influenced just by this one person. It’s definitely not a bottom-top movement, but a top-down movement. Andrej Babis built this movement without any ideological framing. He feels that the people are not much interested in ideology. They’re not much interested in whether the party claims or labels itself as conservative, liberal, or socialist. The people usually have a tendency to see the things done and Andrej Babis, he used his experience from business, and he built his political career around giving people the feeling that he comes to solve the daily issues— not to discuss whether a conservative or liberal approach is better. He just comes to make the things done, and that’s the basic line for him. So if you would, for example, ask what is the ideological profile of the ANO Movement or the ANO Party, there is no one simple question. He picks up the topics and issues everywhere around the left-right scale, and he’s very much flexible from this point of view.
MARC STEINER Well, I’m curious though, he’s also been accused of being a former member of the Communist Party’s Secret Police in Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union was in control, but he represents all these capitals interests, which you were beginning to explain to us after the last question. So, I mean, how is it possible that he’s the first prime minister after the fall communism, who’s government is supported by the Communist Party itself? And so, could you parse it out a bit more for us? I mean, what exactly is this alignment? It seems when I read about this, I’m seeing that the opposition is everything from classic European liberals to young radicals on the left. So, I mean, it’s a very interesting, kind of, spread of parties. It’s not what we usually expect.
PETR JUST I don’t think that the support of the Communist Party has something to do with the fact that Andrej Babis himself is a former member of the Communist Party. Many former members of Communist Parties got distributed all over to the left-right scale after 1989. Andrej Babis was seeking, after the 2017 elections, Andrej Babis was seeking to get support and I [inaudible] really say from anyone who would be able to give him the support, who’d give him the confidence, and support his administration because he won the elections. But since Czech Republic has a proportional system, it’s very rare in such systems, proportional electoral systems, that a winning party holds the majority itself in the legislature. So Andrej Babis won the elections, won with approximately 30% of votes, but did not get majority and therefore, had to seek some support from other parties. He made up the coalition with the Social Democrats, and they negotiated the support from the Communist Party, and that was in exchange for some program issues that the Communist Party wanted to move forward. So there were some issues where Andrej Babis, the Social Democrats, and the Communists were able to agree on. Usually—
MARC STEINER Like what?
PETR JUST Usually, they are issues like not putting any more financial burden on people when trying to get health care because health care and paid healthcare and free healthcare, that’s been a very big issue already in the 2000s when the right-wing governments where adopting the fees that people were paying the doctors, which was something like revolutionary because all the post-Communist countries usually, there is still the tradition of free health care or at least basic health care. So then, came the left-wing governments that abolished these fees and Andrej Babis from this point of view is also acting more like a left-wing politician—
MARC STEINER This—
PETR JUST There was—
MARC STEINER Go ahead. Finish what you were saying. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
PETR JUST There was another issue. There were the restitutions of the church property, the restitutions that the Communist Party, all of the property that the Communist Party before 1989 took from the churches. So it’s been returned to churches quite recently, but now, of course, the left-wing parties are challenging this restitution of all of the church property. And all the three parties— the two coalition parties plus the communist one supporting this coalition— they agreed on giving an extra tax to churches so that they would pay from the property they got, so at least the state would have something from these restitutions into the state budget.
MARC STEINER So this, in some ways, to me is why I think a lot of confusion of the present moment politically takes place— not just in the [Czech Republic], but around the world. I mean, because some of the populist rhetoric that’s being used in the Czech Republic and across Europe and in the United States and in Brazil and in the Philippines is, kind of, left-wing rhetoric run by, kind of, billionaire leaders who are right-wing populists. And so, I’m curious, I mean, so you know we have Trump in the United States. You’ve got Orban. You’ve got all the others around the world. So what’s Babis’s role in this alliance of alt-right leaders, and how does that fit into everything?
PETR JUST Well, he’s sometimes described as Czech Trump, but, of course, the situation is a little bit different because of the position that the President of the US has in the US political system and the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic has in the Czech political system. They are more compared for being the two businessmen who entered politics and who are using their experiences from business to run the state. Andrej Babis himself claims that he came to politics to run the state as he ran his businesses. So this is probably the common issue that all these entrepreneurs and businessmen who enter politics have. I think that Andrej Babis is, of those who you named actually as the other examples, I think Andrej Babis is the least ideologically-oriented one. So while—
MARC STEINER But hasn’t he, kind of, complained about immigration and immigrants coming to the Czech Republic when that’s really not a huge issue for the Czech Republic?
PETR JUST Well, yeah. They’re not a lot of immigrants in Czech Republic, but it’s still a big issue because it’s always catchy for the people. People will probably, people will likely understand the issues that they actually never, never experienced because they cannot prove whether the politicians are actually right or wrong in this, so it’s a common technique that you claim that there is some threat and you claim that you came actually to save the people from the threat. And that’s exactly what’s happening on migration issues in some of the countries, not in all the countries. Of course, Hungary has a completely different experience with migration because they are on the southern border of the Schengen Area, so they are facing much more critical situations when it comes to the migration situation.
But, for example, the Czech Republic, which is a landlocked country but not only landlocked without the access to the sea, but also landlocked when we take it from the perspective of the external border of the European Union. Hungary is also landlocked without the access to the sea, but it’s on the external border of the European Union, of the Schengen Area, but in the Czech Republic, there is not much of an issue. But still, people take it seriously and the politicians—And not only Andrej Babis. Also the President, Milos Zeman. Or, the leader of one of the extreme right-wing parties, the SPD, the Freedom and Direct Democracy, Tomio Okamura. They are using this issue, this migration issue, to get votes and to claim that they will save people from the migrants, and they will save Czech Republic from Islamization and similar issues.
MARC STEINER Well, Petr Just, thank you so much for taking your time with us this evening in Czechoslovakia—I mean, the Czech Republic. Excuse me. I keep doing that. I’m a certain age. It’s still in my head. I have to get it out. But thank you so much. [laughs]
PETR JUST [inaudible] I was born in Czechoslovakia, so I consider Czechoslovakia to be my home country. Although, we are [inaudible] to Czech Republic and Slovakia, but I still feel Czechoslovakian, so it was no—
MARC STEINER I don’t feel so bad. Petr Just, thank you so much. It’s been great to talk to you.
PETR JUST Have a nice day. Good bye.
MARC STEINER Thank you. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for watching. Take care.