Authoritarian right: Czech Republic

Czech ANO is a new party created in 2011 by Andrej Babiš, the second richest man in Czech Republic. Babiš made his fortune via Agrofert, a massive agricultural and chemical conglomerate. The billionaire launched Action for Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) as a populist “anti-corruption” movement. ANO’s biggest donor is Babiš himself via the many companies he controls. SidenoteOverall, ANO’s donations seem 50 per cent from individuals and 50 per cent from legal entities (such as companies). However these individuals might be linked to companies (we were unable to check for this). It should be said that there are many limits to the proper scrutiny of political donations and the publicly-available data is not entirely reliable. In 2013, ANO came second in the national elections and joined a governmental coalition which made Babiš Finance Minister. In 2017 he became Prime Minister of the new coalition Government.

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Just before the 2013 elections Babiš started a media takeover buying up the media group MAFRA. EU rights group Liberties described it as publishing “one of the most popular newspapers in the country.” Liberties goes on to explain that Babiš “then bought the newspapers Lidové noviny and Metro, together read by more than a million Czechs everyday. He followed this with the acquisition of Radio Impuls, which enjoys the largest audience in the country.”

Babiš is accused of using his control over media to push favourable messages, silence criticism, and attack the opposition. SidenoteAnother big threat to media freedom in the Czech Republic is the rhetoric deployed by President Milos Zeman, who threatened journalists multiple times, once saying they should be liquidated, another time waving a fake machine gun during a press conference. This is backed up by analysis by Foreign Policy. Mlada fronta DNES journalists have openly declared that the rules of the game changed in their newspapers once they were bought by Babiš, and those that didn’t follow were fired. Babiš is also not very fond of public scrutiny. Corporate Europe Observatory’s board member Jakub Patočka and the media portal he works for, Denik Referendum, were threatened with legal action and extra scrutiny from the financial department after publishing an exposé on Babiš’s corporate affairs “Zlutí Baron”.

In spite of ANO’s anti-corruption rhetoric Babiš’ time in government has been plagued by corruption stories. For years Babiš has been under investigation for suspicion of fraud with EU funds that were aimed at small and medium businesses but which he funnelled into building a personal mansion. This was initially discovered by the EU’s anti-fraud agency OLAF which has then passed this on to the Czech police. After conducting its own investigation, the Czech police are now, for the second time, asking that charges are officially brought against the Prime Minister.

Babiš has replied that he believes this investigation is part of a political conspiracy and, going a step further, replaced the Czech Minister of Justice with an ally, raising fears there would be further personnel changes, including the state prosecutors and judges that would be responsible for overseeing the process (and judging him). Human rights NGO Liberties has labelled this as potentially “the biggest hit on judicial power since November 1989 and is an existential threat to the rule of law in the Czech Republic.”

Thousands of protesters took to the street for three straight weeks against this nomination fearing the new Minister would lead to the investigation being dropped.

In 2016 public pressure forced Babiš to put control of his companies into a blind trust to diminish the danger that his governmental role was benefiting his business interests. But since then it has been revealed that Babiš is still, in fact, the fund’s ultimate beneficiary, rendering the precaution worthless. Transparency International Czech Republic has placed two complaints over the potential conflicts of interest at play.

Babiš is clearly using the national government to grow his own personal wealth and this is reflected in his lack of political substance

Babiš is clearly using the national government to grow his own personal wealth and this is reflected in his lack of political substance. Patočka explains: “Babiš’s personal fortune has increased from €1.5 billion to €3.4 billion during his first four years in government. A €40 million increase per month, in other words.”

Liberties added that: “He sees immigration and terrorism as the two biggest threats to Europe, and, much like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczynski, sees himself as the saviour of his country’s national identity. In order to strengthen his position, Babiš, like Orban and Kaczynski, is beginning to suppress critical voices inside and outside of government.”

ANO is normally not discussed in the same breath as the other authoritarian parties in this list. Instead, comparisons are normally drawn with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and sometimes US President Donald Trump. ANO, like Forza Italia can be described as neoliberal populist parties created by immensely wealthy individuals that have used their private companies and control of media companies to run successful campaigns creating an image of the outsider hell-bent on disrupting the establishment. Their respective leaders, Babiš and Berlusconi, have shown no qualms in taking on the narratives and values of more authoritarian parties round them to score political points. Babiš has even shown “a willingness to work with extremely-right politician Okamura and his SPD SidenoteSPD is a far-right Czech party known for promoting Islamophobia. It cooperates with other far-right parties across Europe and have recently joined the new political grouping promoted by Lega and Rassemblement National. They do not have any MEPs. party on a quid pro quo basis”, according to the New York Times.

In 2014 ANO elected four MEPs, but two have since left the party. During this mandate, ANO MEPs rejected 11 out of the 14 measures we analysed (see full results here), including all measures on tax avoidance. On labour protections, they rejected proposals to establish a minimum paternity leave, work-life balance, detection of gender pay gaps, and decent working conditions for all. They also opposed the swift end of fossil fuel subsidies. ANO MEPs were classified by CAN Europe as dinosaurs for their very low support for climate change action.

In the European Parliament ANO is a member of the ALDE (the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), led by Belgian Guy Verhofstadt who has loudly criticised other political groups for not expelling their authoritarian or corrupt members.

ALDE has not commented on the authoritarian attacks and corruption scandals led by its own Czech member.

Yet ALDE has not commented on the authoritarian attacks and corruption scandals led by its own Czech member. Verhofstadt has instead called Babiš an ally for EU reform on issues such as “defence, migration and new governance of the eurozone”.

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