By: Jonathan Ocadiz*
In the summer of 2019, Prague was the center of mass protests of historical proportions. In protests that mirrored demonstrations from nearly three decades ago in Prague’s picturesque boulevards, more than 100,000 citizens gathered at one of the city’s public parks in late June and dissented against the current prime minister, Andrej Babiš, on allegations of corruption and abuse of power.  The protests in June have become noteworthy due to their similarities to the protests from 1989 that brought down the Eastern bloc. Although the 1989 protests were noted for their higher levels of public participation, with nearly a million Czechoslovakians participating, the June protests were unique in that members of the older generation brought their younger counterparts to come to the same public locations where the events of 1989 played out.  Not only are the protests the physical manifestation of a public desire for proper conduct, but they also ironically highlight the issues of corruption and elitism, which populism claims to resolve, and which would eventually cause the government to devour in on itself. These cyclical grievances have polarized Czech society and strained the relationship between the Czech Republic and the E.U.
Populism is a unique political ideology of perceptions. According to Andrej Skolkay, “The populist politician presents himself as a common man who understands people, in contrast to the corrupt elites, incapable and/or unfit to govern.”  Such figures are defined with characteristics of division. For instance, the public rhetoric of populist figures does not always correspond to their respective actions, which often divides the populace on supporting a figure who would eventually adapt an undemocratic style of governance.  These characteristics of populism can be found in the Czech Republic with the rise of Andrej Babiš. Although the Slovakian-born Babiš entered into Czech politics in 2012, he would ultimately acquire his current position in the Czech government while serving as the leader of the influential populist party ANO, five years later.  The election of Babiš and the ANO party reflects a growing change in Czech political preference. During the 2017 parliamentary election, ANO acquired more than twenty percent of the vote while the historically predominant party, the Social Democrats, received less than ten percent.  The election of Babiš has become emblematic of populism and noted by scholars as an example of a growing sense of public apathy to the pre-ANO political establishment. For instance, Jacques Rupnik, a French-Czech political scholar, informed the Czech Press Agency that members of the Czech public are appalled that the Czech government is more receptive to figures that yield corruptive, political, and economic influence. 
Indeed, Rupnik’s stance on the growing dissatisfaction of the Czech populace towards the political establishment was evident in aftermath of the 2013 election that projected Babiš. After the 2013 election, in which ANO received the second highest amount of votes, Babiš served as financial minister, helping to establish his antiestablishment platform.  However, Babiš’ actions as financial minister were counterintuitive to his populist stance on promoting anticorruption. In 2017, he was requested to step down from his financial minister position due to allegations of tax fraud, while advocating that those claims were a conspiracy by the political establishment. Ironically, he used these claims to support his antiestablishment platform.  This incident goes against the populist celebration of virtue. According to Petr Kaniok and Vlastimil Havlík, “Populist political parties, thus present themselves as defenders of ‘pure’ politics, as fighters taking on corruption, who are able to renew the ‘distorted’ relationship between the elites and the people.” 
In an ironic twist, the populist Andrej Babiš was at the forefront of criminal investigations, which caused the general public to question his anticorruption stances. These investigations have stemmed Babiš’ former role as the head of the Czech-based corporation, the Agrofert Group, which was involved in the acquisition and enhancement of agricultural properties by proxy.  One of these property acquisitions placed Agrofert and, eventually, the prime minister into scrutiny. In 2006, the corporation under Babiš’ kin, acquired a former farm and utilized funding from the European Union (E.U.) that was strictly for non-large business development for the property, despite Babiš’ denials of involvement.  This incident of corruption by Babiš highlights his hypocrisy on his populist platform of anticorruption.
Consequentially, the Agrofert scandal has prompted criminal inquiries by a multitude of governmental actors over concerns that the prime minister utilized his position for financial benefits. In 2017, the Czech legislature nullified the prime minister’s immunity so that he could be subjected to legal prosecution by Czech authorities.  Yet, it was the European Commission’s (E.C) separate inquiry that caused severe repercussions regarding E.U-Czech relations towards funding. On one hand, the E. C’s inquiry and subsequent report into the Agrofert affair highlighted Babiš’ systemic disregard of E.U. guidelines on funding. This report undermined the position observed by the Czech Republic that smaller E.U member states should be granted more autonomy in the allocation of funds, while also serving as the spark for the June 4th protests in Prague that called for Babiš’ removal.  On the other hand, the E.C’s investigation also provoked a spark of populist anti-E.U. resentment, led by the Czech prime minister himself.
Prime Minister Babiš condemned the E. C’s report on the claims that the European Commission’s actions were counterproductive to Czech national interests, an antagonistic sentiment which is supported by a significant proportion of the Czech populace who remain suspicious of the E.U.  Ironically, mass sentiment reflects populism in the Czech Republic as a platform of identity-based policies by Eurosceptics regardless of Czech populist parties’ respective platforms. For instance, Czech Eurosceptics are more likely to utilize populist parties to publicly promote E.U.-related topics that are contradictory to their identity-based platforms, even though Czech populist parties such as ANO can present within their platforms to be in favor of collaborating with the E.U.  This phenomenon of anti-E.U. sentiment has grown within the Czech Republic in conjunction with the rise of populist parties, even though Czechs historically have been supportive of the E.U. Although the Czech public was staunchly resistant towards joining the E.U during the final decade of the 20th century, public opinion gradually changed towards a pro-E.U. stance during the early 2000s despite less than one-quarter of Czech participants in a 2005 public survey expressed hesitation towards the E.U.  In any case, Babiš’ antagonistic stance against the European Commission and the subsequent public support reflects not only a growing anti-E.U. sentiment, but also highlights a divisive wedge in Czech society regarding Czech-E.U. relations.
However, the recent June 2019 protests were derived out of concerns of the potential abuse of power by Babiš. In early June of 2019, he appointed Marie Benešová as the head of the Czech Ministry of Justice, an act which was widely condemned by the public due to her relationship to the pro-Babiš Czech head of state. However, the appointment was beneficial to Babiš as it granted him the indirect ability to replace prosecutors who have the legal power to place charges, regardless of the stances of Czech law enforcement.  The appointment of Benešová has been feared by many Czechs as a subversion of the rule of law by the prime minister in order to evade accountability for the Agrofert affair. Those concerns would be later realized in September of 2019, when the chief prosecutor of the Czech capital declined to press charges and terminated the criminal inquiry into Babiš’ abuse of E.U. subsidies.  The prime minister’s actions on evading accountability through the judicial appointment is against the populist beliefs of virtue, which has further aggravated the people.
Additionally, Prime Minister Babiš was recently revealed to have been a former communist official, which further weakens his populist platform of ant-elitism and additionally suggests that he has a criminal background. In February of 2018, a Slovakian court excluded Babiš’ claim in which he denied working alongside the StB, the former secret police, when he sued the Slovakian national archives that hold StB records on himself.  In addition, the tribunal provided further revelations on Babiš’ former role. For instance, Babiš acknowledged that he met with StB agents to discuss economic matters when he served as a communist official during the 1980s, even though the revelation bears little legal consequences.  It was Slovakia’s lack of enforcement that prevented such legal consequences. The Slovakian government did not enforce former Czechoslovakian legislation on temporarily prohibiting former StB/Communist officials into office and subsequently terminated it.  For the Slovakian-born Babiš, this lack of enforcement and expiration of legislation by the Slovakian government has enabled him to evade any consequences for his direct role within the communist regime, even though it has brought the ire of Czech public opinion through public protests due to the negative stigma of the regime. From 1948 to 1989, the communist regime was complicit in political repression, ranging from executing critics to extrajudicial imprisonment of innocent civilians and secret police surveillance.  Consequentially, prime minister Babiš’ role in the communist regime has further publicly alienated him and reflects his hypocrisy.
In any case, the Prague protests that occurred in June reflect massive public criticism of the prime minister’s illegal conduct. The protests are important because they highlight the effects of populist leaders that negatively impact a democratic society and that parallels similar governments around the world. The manifestations represent the double-edge sword of exercising the democratic right for the people to express their concerns through protests that would assist in bringing figures such as Babiš into power. But they also symbolize that the same issues that populism claims to address, corruption and elitism, can ironically become embraced by such governments themselves, which prompts such public outcry and action.
List of Sources
[1.] Hana de Goeij and Marc Santora, “In the Largest Protest in Decades, Czechs Demand Resignation of Prime Minister,” New York Times, June 23, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/23/world/europe/czech-republic-protests-andrej-babis.html.
[2.] De Goeij and Santora, “In the Largest Protest.”
[3.] Andrej Skolkay, “Populism in Central Eastern Europe,” In IWM Junior Visiting Fellows Conferences, Ed. David Shikiar, (Vienna: IWM, 2000), 2. https://www.iwm.at/wp-content/uploads/jc-09-11.pdf
[4.] Skolay, “Populism in Central Eastern Europe,” 3.
[5.] Ivana Kottasová, “The ‘Biggest Protest Since the Fall of Communism’ in Prague Called for the Resignation of the ‘Czech Trump,’” CNN, June 23,, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/23/europe/czech-republic-babis-protest-intl/index.html.
[6.] Hana de Goeij and Rick Lyman, “Czech Election Won by Anti-Establishment Party Led by Billionaire,” The New York Times, October 21, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/21/world/europe/andrej-babis-ano-czech-election.html.
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*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.