Andrej Babiš outwardly does not appear to have the firmest grasp on power in the Czech Republic. The embattled billionaire Prime Minister has faced potential votes of no confidence, an investigation by state police for fraud, and a mass protest demanding his resignation. But what Babiš lacks in legislative power, he makes up for with the wherewithal to influence civil society and the Czech media.
An Embattled Leader
Babiš’s breakthrough into politics came in the 2013 parliamentary elections when his ANO party won 18.65% of the vote on an anti-establishment, anti-corruption populist platform . ANO won a substantial plurality in the 2017 election, and following 8 months of political wrangling, managed to form a minority coalition, allowing Babiš to ascend to the position of Prime Minister.
Despite strong popularity pre-pandemic, Babiš has faced continual challenges. The Prime Minister faced potential indictment after the Czech police recommended fraud charges for EU subsidies paid to one of his companies, and in June of 2019, he faced a quarter-million large mass protest following his appointment of a new Justice Minister days after charges were recommended. His ANO party, having won 29.1% of the vote in the Czech Republic’s 2017 parliamentary election, lacks a majority necessary to form a government without the support of minority coalition partners, and thus also lacks the power to change the Constitution. Babiš’s relatively weak coalition and limited legislative powers could suggest that he lacks the means to engage in democratic backsliding, but this is a misconception.
The Dominant Model of Democratic Backsliding
The dominant form of democratic backsliding in recent history has been “executive aggrandizement,” or the process of an elected executive “undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences” . Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die, add that these subversions enjoy both “a veneer of democracy” and are often adopted under the guise of legitimate reform, such as “combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process” . A salient example of modern executive aggrandizement is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who used the AKP’s substantial parliamentary power to pass laws that “allow the criminal prosecution of journalists for discussing any subject deemed controversial by state authorities” .
Outwardly, the Czech Republic still has a robust liberal democracy with an independent judiciary, a free press, and a parliamentary system with diverse parties. Freedom House found that in spite of attempts at judicial interference, the “Police, the public prosecution, and the court system in Czechia continued to function properly and independently, providing a high standard for the protection of rights.” But, focusing on ANO’s formal legislative and executive power ignores the significant influence Babiš has accumulated in state bureaucracy, the Czech economy, and as a media mogul. Unlike Erdoğan, who consolidated power through executive aggrandizement after electoral success, Babiš is able to covertly wield his vast economic and political power as an oligarch to forego the traditional aggrandizement process, and in doing so circumvent the institutional checks on his power.
An Oligarch With Unprecedented Means
Andrej Babiš made his fortune in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent protest-movement that converted then-Czechoslovakia from a communist state into a liberal democracy. Through his connections to state-owned enterprises and government officials overseeing the privatization of the Czech economy, Babiš steadily bought up former state-owned assets throughout the 1990’s to form Agrofert, an agribusiness conglomerate . Babiš has since diversified his holdings, and currently has a net worth of over $4.7b, becoming the second richest individual in the Czech Republic. Beyond pure economic power, Babiš also has stakes in the most popular radio station in the Czech Republic, two of the main Czech newspapers with enormous internet visibility, and a variety of other publications, resulting in his empire reaching between one third and a half of all Czech adults .
Unsurprisingly, in addition to building his reputation and public image, Babiš has used his media empire to assassinate the characters’ of his opponents. Journalists at Lidové noviny and MF Dnes, two major newspapers Babiš controls, have resigned in protest of political interference . A 2017 recording even showed Babiš “strategising with a reporter at MF Dnes about when and how to run damaging stories about a political opponent of ANO” . The Prime Minister’s financial control of major Czechian media in practice means that he is able to effect similar outcomes as Erdoğan or other autocrats in eroded democracies, but without the need to pass restrictive laws through parliament, efforts which he would likely fail at given his tenuous minority-coalition. As Finance Minister, Babiš was able to appoint allies to lead the tax inspection and financial crimes divisions, and as Prime Minister it is expected he would appoint allies to “the boards of state-owned enterprises,” and “the public broadcaster Czech Television and the broadcasting regulator” .
The Long-run Strategy
These developments should be clear signs of a would-be authoritarian, but the Czech Republic is still often viewed as a liberal democracy with sufficient independent institutions to prevent democratic backsliding. Babiš represents an inversion in sequencing of the classic executive aggrandizement strategy seen in Turkey and Hungary – the Prime Minister’s informal influence and vast economic power supplement his lack of a parliamentary majority necessary for Constitutional revision and conventional backsliding. This creates the possibility of a long-run strategy toward entrenchment, in which Babiš could use the prestige of his position and some of his non-legislative formal powers to covertly gain further influence in state enterprises while also wielding his media empire, ultimately circumventing the more salient process of executive aggrandizement. This concentration of non-governmental power in the hands of a populist leader should be a warning sign to the international community of an authoritarian-in-wait, and treated as a potential new path to democratic erosion. Hanley, Seán, and Milada Anna Vachudova. “Understanding the illiberal turn: democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic.” East European Politics 34, no. 3 (2018): 276-296. pp. 277  Bermeo, Nancy. “On democratic backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 5-19. Harvard. pp. 10  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018). pp. 10  Ibid, pp. 11  Hanley, Seán, and Milada Anna Vachudova. “Understanding the illiberal turn: democratic backsliding in the Czech Republic.” East European Politics 34, no. 3 (2018): 276-296. pp. 284  Ibid, pp. 287  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid, pp. 288