Corrupt populists

The Trump of Europe who rules in Prague

Czech Republic Elections
Czech billionaire and ANO leader Andrej Babiš addresses the media in Prague after winning in October 2017 elections. Source: AP

When it comes to European politicians, there’s probably no one more like President Donald Trump than Andrej Babiš, the new prime minister of the Czech Republic. A billionaire elected on a wave of populism, he’s known for his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Another similarity with the US president: From the moment he took office, Mr. Babiš has been dogged by a criminal investigation that he airily dismisses.

But tonight, Mr. Babiš has other things on his mind. The fit, telegenic 63-year-old is inspecting the interiors of the new restaurant and hotel that his wife, Monika Babišová, 20 years his junior and a Czech fashion and interior-decorating icon, is opening in Průhonice, on the outskirts of Prague. The chef for the new establishment, an import from France, wants Mr. Babiš to taste several versions of a new desert.

Officially Mr. Babiš is not supposed to have anything more to do with those deserts, or with businesses like this. His party, Action for Dissatisfied Citizens, or ANO, won the most votes in last October’s Czech parliamentary elections. And as an elected politician, he has put the company that made him the Czech Republic’s second richest man in a trust.

“Lies, all lies. You are reading lies written by journalists who are just as corrupt as the system.”

Andrej Babiš, prime minister, Czech Republic

Along with a turn to the extreme right in neighboring Hungary and Poland, the victory of Mr. Babiš’s ANO party presents a serious challenge to Europe’s liberal leadership, though there are some serious questions about just how long he will last.

The ANO party got just 78 of the 200 seats in parliament and could not find any allies apart from the tiny Communist party, which is supporting a minority government. As a result, Mr. Babiš, who was appointed prime minister on December 6, already faces his next new challenge – a key vote of confidence on January 10.

But what does all this mean for Germany? Has a rampant populist really captured the hearts and minds of the nation that started the Velvet Revolution, which sparked the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe?

Czech Republic Elections
Czech prime minister, Mr. Babis, with his wife Monika, a Czech fashion and interior-decorating icon. Source: AP

One definitely gets that impression during a stroll through the streets of Průhonice. “That house there, I bought recently,” Mr. Babiš says, with a casual wave of his hand. “That one back there, also mine. And that’s where I put in an Alzheimer’s center.” It’s like this every few meters, along the road. “I’ve invested around 40 million euros in Průhonice,” he boasts.

Mr. Babiš, who was born in Slovakia and retains Slovak citizenship, is a self-made billionaire. His company is called Agrofert. It’s a hotel, food, construction and agricultural conglomerate that has 34,000 employees in 250 subsidiaries and annual turnover of more than €6 billion ($7. 2 billion). And just like Donald Trump, Mr. Babiš is not supposed to have anything to do with his businesses anymore. But here in Průhonice tonight, he behaves as if he is still paying for everything; indeed, the money for all this comes from an Agrofert subsidiary.

Eventually we reach his wife’s atelier, a one-story glass cube between bustling restaurants and banks as big as sports centers. Mr. Babiš holds his finger up to a security scanner and a door swings open. After making his way across a zebra skin rug, he reaches a table on which lies a book. Like Mr. Trump’s ghost-written autobiography, The Art of the Deal, Mr. Babiš likes to display his own memoir, a black and white comic book entitled: What I Dream of When I Sleep. He has printed 300,000 copies and distributed them around the country.

During this interview with Handelsblatt’s sister publication, Wirtschaftswoche, Mr. Babiš keeps on tapping on the book’s cover whenever he makes an important point. And he insists on reading out one very important passage, which says that, in the 1920s, the Czechs were wealthier than neighboring Austria and more productive than the Germans. The overriding message of Mr. Babiš’s book is clear: Make the Czech Republic great again.

A poster depicting the leader of ANO party Andrej Babis hangs on a bus stop near the town of Benesov
Not everyone is an Andrej Babiš fan. This poster reads: This is not Babiš's land. Source: Reuters

His plan is to do this with digitalization, by improving efficiency and by greatly reducing the number of members of parliament – basically, just the sort of cost-cutting one would undertake with an ailing company. Mr. Babiš maintains that all this is necessary because the country is corrupt, journalists here have been bribed and politicians bought by interest groups. “Why did I go into politics?” he asks rhetocially. “Because all of the corrupt parties in the Czech Republic call themselves democratic. That’s our system.”

But there’s a catch. For all his “drain the swamp” rhetoric about Czech political corruption, Mr. Babiš himself also faces charges of seriously mishandling state money. Forbes magazine has pointed out that while he was the Czech finance minister in the previous government between 2014 and 2017, his earnings doubled, reaching around $4.1 billion. Mr. Babiš dismisses those calculations. “My company at the time lost at least 20 million euros just because I entered politics,” he insists.

In previous interviews, he has also said that he recognized there was a conflict of interest between the office of the minister of finance and the office of the head of Agrofert – but that he certainly wasn’t stupid enough to abuse that position because, after all, it was too obvious. “Lies, all lies,” Mr. Babiš says, vehement about his innocence. “You are reading lies written by journalists who are just as corrupt as the system.”

Another problem: One of his many businesses, a spa called the Stork’s Nest, was spun off from the Agrofert conglomerate and then received €2 million in special European Union financial assistance for small business. When news of the deal initially surfaced, Mr. Babiš, who was then still serving as finance minister, was promptly fired by the governing party. Now the European Union’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF, has reportedly found irregularities in the funding and requested the Czech finance ministry to refund the money to Brussels.

“We decide with whom we are in solidarity, not the European commission or individual countries who have this multicultural model.”

Andrej Babiš, prime minister, Czech Republic

Mr. Babiš currently enjoys parliamentary immunity against being charged with a crime, but Czech investigators and opposition politicians have asked for that immunity to be cancelled. His response to these reports was to announce that his former company had filed a complaint with the European ombudsman and a lawsuit with the European Court of Justice about the way in which the anti-fraud inquiry was conducted. “OLAF’s inquiry had a very non-standard manner,” he complains.

For most politicians, a corruption scandal like that might well put an end to their political aspirations. But so far, it doesn’t seem to have done Mr. Babiš any harm. One reason may be is that he has fully embraced the anti-immigrant, nationalistic tone becoming popular across eastern Europe.

Even neighboring liberal Austria has just agreed to include the far right Freedom Party in the country’s coalition government. The unifying factor is opposition to the EU’s decision to show solidarity with countries along the Mediterranean by establishing  a refugee quota among all 27 countries of the EU.

“We do show solidarity,” he argues. “But we decide with whom we are in solidarity, not the European Commission or individual countries who have this multicultural model,” Mr. Babiš says, in a clear reference to Germany’s Angela Merkel. “We have a different history and different model. If others want the migrants, they should take them.”

Paradoxically, while Mr. Babiš criticizes Ms. Merkel on refugees, he has nothing but positive things to say about her otherwise in the interview. Likewise he is a big fan of Germany’s former finance minister, Wolfgang Schaüble, whom he says helped him in the fight against tax fraud.

That wily charm remains on display later in the evening, in Průhonice. Back at the hotel opening, Mr. Babiš’s wife greets him, dressed up in a blue evening gown. She’s nervous as she prepares to give a speech on stage. Her husband was supposed to do it, “but that won’t do, now that he is a politician,” she explains.

It doesn’t stop Mr. Babiš from working the crowd though. Invitees include the Russian ambassador, the French ambassador and various other local notables. Clusters of guests surround him as he charms his way around the room. Again, it reminds of Mr. Trump. Tonight, Mr. Babiš is not just pleasing fans, he’s collecting votes.

Andreas Macho is an editor in the investigative features team for WirtschaftsWoche, Handelsblatt’s sister publication. This article was adapted from WirtschasftsWoche by Charles Wallace, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the author: andreas.macho@wiwo.de

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!