Shortly after being elected, Donald Trump phoned three Eastern European politicians: the leader of the Polish PiS Jarosław Kaczyński, the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán and the Czech President Miloš Zeman. The new American President has (correctly) realized that the Eastern edge of the European Union is a fertile ground for regimes that share his rhetoric, so he invited their representatives to Washington in mutual delight: these three leaders look up to Trump and finally they could boast international recognition, as until now, their anti-liberal views have not been exactly popular in the West.
Eastern European regimes became the focus of interest for American journalists trying to answer the question, “What the hell is going to happen now?” The Atlantic’s David Frum considers Hungary an example of a new kind of authoritarian regime, one not based on ideology but simply on the greed of elites. It is in Orbán’s Hungary, Kaczyński’s Poland, and in similar regimes that Frum is looking for patterns that could predict Donald Trump’s behavior in the near future.
While the situation in the Czech Republic is not comparable to Hungary or Poland just yet, it has joined the Visegrad resistance to refugee quotas happily enough. And it is far from clear what the most popular Czech political leader and Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš will do if – or more likely when – he becomes the next Prime Minister.
A Post-Fascist Region
Ten years ago, the Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás called the Central European mix of authoritarianism, hard asocial capitalism, and a formal take on democracy “post-fascism.” “Fascism is defined by denying the civic laws of certain groups of people, which is already happening,” said Tamás on Czech radio, supplying the example of criminalization of the homeless in Budapest. He stresses that the term post-fascism concerns the heading of society as a whole – individual politicians or parties need not be fascist or post-fascist in order to shift their society towards what Tamás considers post-fascism. After all, there is no perfectly satisfactory way to label the current wave of politics veering away from liberal values: the ultra-right tendencies (extreme nationalism, cultural conservatism and social darwinism) is just one of the many facets of this trend. And it is one of the least visible with Babiš.
The term post-fascism concerns the heading of society as a whole – individual politicians or parties need not be fascist or post-fascist in order to shift their society towards post-fascism.
Andrej Babiš’s nationalism, if we can talk about it as such, is rather reserved and places importance on the pride of Czech skill and of being right-winged. When it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric, Babiš fits somewhere in the middle of Czech politicians: when media interest peaked, he did not hesitate to repeat the conspiracy theory about the artificial import of left-wing voters into Europe, but he never called for closing the Czech borders or exiting the EU (he shares this view with Orbán and Kaczyński, both of whom recognize the value of the EU as a source of money for the poorer East). The same thing can be said about his antiziganism – while his statements about the concentration camp in Lety were as dumb as they were frightening, he did not turn the fight against the Romani into his own political agenda. The verbal (and other) attacks against LGBTQ+ issues that we hear from Poland are missing completely. Babiš’s saying, “it is all about whether politicians can make decisions,” does not sound like something a fascist (or anti-fascist) would say; Babiš is not a part of the “conservative revolution.” In the French elections he is rooting for the moderate, former banker Macron, not the ultra-right wing Le Pen, whom Orbán and Kaczyński support.
Widening the Media Field
What does make Babiš similar to his authoritarian neighbors (or Trump) are his methods that require a center of power – primarily owning media or at least being able to influence it. In Poland, Kaczyński can lean on the Catholic Church and its influence, including sympathetic, conservative media like Radio Maryja or his own schools for future journalists. Kaczyński had access to this PiS-friendly support structure even before he won the elections and started subjugating state television. In Hungary, Orbán’s Fidész has created a structure of clientele networks of interconnecting state, party and business subjects. These shift the balance of power towards Orbán and decisively influence his media image. Babiš can rely on one of the biggest companies in the Czech Republic, which has – right before elections – also happened to eat up the biggest publishing house in the country. Babiš placed his people as the heads of the two biggest newspapers in the country – the professional loyalist Jaroslav Plesl at MF Dnes and his friend István Léko at People’s News. The first openly sympathizes with Trump, the second with Orbán.
Babiš started his Trump-style war against state television when he stated that the popular TV anchor Moravec was conspiring against him along with the opposition politician Petr Gazdík. Before that, he filed complaints against the supposedly “corrupt investigative journalists” who “keep doing pieces on him.” Czech TV – as a public medium, i.e. at least to the extent politically and economically independent – is a logical target if Babiš intends to keep building up his hegemony. Analogical TV stations were among the first targets in Poland and Hungary, and while Babiš’s media attacks are on a rather different scale from Trump’s crusade against liberal media elites or from attacking the independence of public television, it shows that he is not above this strategy.
Unlike Trump and Polish right-wingers, Babiš does not stoop to using ultra-right conspiracy website propaganda, although the existence of these sites may have an indirect effect on him given the way their agenda seeps into Czech mainstream politics from other parties, and politicians all-too-happy to share fake photos and praise authoritarianism. Babiš’s media power is based on more serious journalism.
Babiš the Proponent
The common personification of Andrej Babiš as “the threat to democracy” creates the impression that if not for him, our democracy would be perfectly fine and maybe even burgeoning. But it would not burgeon. The exhaustion of the post-communist narrative about returning to Europe and its effects on politics can be seen in all Central European countries. Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic are all headed towards new forms of authoritarianism and share many tendencies. And yet, the other three countries of the V4 can do this even without eccentric millionaires and with no better results. Understanding Babiš as an embodied (only) threat to democracy even corresponds to what he says himself. Babiš often refers to himself as an error in the established political system, a system where two parties of incorrigible corruption have been serving one big gang of thieves and have kept the power passed between one another. It has taken Babiš to disrupt the system.
Babiš, coming into power in a country headed towards post-fascism, does not intend to change anything about that course.
Babiš is coming into power in a country headed towards what Tamás calls post-fascism. He does not intend to change anything about that course; he probably does not even care. He is not a friend of democracy, but he is not its (ideological) enemy either. This is reflected in the paradox of him connecting the liberal and anti-liberal values of today’s society. In 2013, he considered it important to surround himself with intellectuals, journalists and artists, he talked about corruption, and he compared his party ANO to the revolutionary Civic Forum of 1989. In 2014, he even visited the squatters at the Klinika community center. And two years later, he fantasized about conspiracy theories, admitted he was an admirer of Orbán and replaced Obama as his campaign role model – with Trump.
The most important difference between Babiš and the other V4 leaders – Fico, Orbán, Kaczyński – lies in the fact Babiš is not part of the political class that formed in the 1990s. This is the source of a large part of his legitimacy and support, and is also why he does not need so much nationalism and resistance against the “liberal elite.”
The story of Trump’s and Babiš’s success is not a fairytale about paupers who made it to the top of their own ideas and diligence; these are tales about hard pragmatists who “know how to do it” and were able to exploit the times. Drawing attention to this fact is not a thing that can threaten them in any way: Babiš’s electorate does not need to idealize how he got rich. The classic opinion of “he does not need to steal” does not ask where the money came from in the first place; it just concerns itself with the current state. And there is a lesser-known motto about Babiš: “He is a bastard, but he is ours.” It is better to have a single, somewhat polite thief and shifty character than the rule of dozens of little godfathers – that is the justification of hundreds of thousands of people who, pragmatically, voted. But while Babiš was not a politician until 2013, he was part of the most exclusive elite in the country. His miraculously getting rich in the 1990s is directly connected to his position in the structures of the pre-revolutionary regime.
While Hungary has a hard nationalist, Poland boasts an ultra-conservative Catholic and Slovakia possesses a socialist-nationalist. When compared to Babiš, he might not seem as bad. But the new asymmetry of power will fully manifest itself only when Babiš becomes Prime Minister – especially given his friendly relations with President Zeman.
The Czech Republic has not had a PM this powerful yet. His position in his party is unshakeable; even though the Czech media were essentially right-wing for years, it was always due to the ideological accord of politicians with journalists. But if we talk about MF Dnes as the party paper today, it is being optimistic – the journal does not belong to ANO, it belongs to Babiš. In the case of any – however unlikely – dissent within the party, the papers will take Babiš’s side. And as far as public television is concerned, Babiš shares aversion towards it with Zeman. There is thus no telling how long it will manage to keep even the small degree of independence it possesses now.
Babiš’s image of a non-politician fighting against corruption will effectively be exhausted upon reaching the post of Prime Minister. His media outbursts will lose their most common target. Babiš has repeatedly declared his ambition to “run the state like a company” and not to bother with trifles like media and parliamentary criticism; the efficiency rhetoric can harmonize with the offensive against “neo-Marxists” and “going too far with human rights.” The ultra-right agenda – as long as it does not exceed the tastes of the rather passive ANO electorate – will serve Babiš as well as any other he has used so far, provided the further rise of ultra-right populism in Europe will keep the demand for a militant approach to minorities and immigrants high. Yet, ANO itself has not taken any steps in that direction. So far it still focuses on improving the technocratic functioning of the state and has yet to mobilize in any national or typically political way. So far.
Translation by Michal Chmela.