The rising tide in Europe does seem to be populism. Last year Brexit and Trump got the ball rolling. It hit a couple of road bumps in the Netherlands and France, but in Austria it kept going. Now it’s the Czech Republic’s turn. Yes, the Czech’s have their own Trump.
But this “Czech Trump” isn’t quite what he seems to be.
Who is Ajdrej Babis?
Andrej Babis, Czech businessman, has a record more like that of Putin than that of Trump. Trump’s reputation coming into office was that of a bombastic, wealthy, thrice-married, TV personality, with some business success to his name. His business failures included casinos (how?), a football league meant to challenge the NFL monopoly and a scam called Trump University. But he’s proving to be, on balance, far from the worst president we’ve seen in my lifetime.
Andrej Babis is going into office with a different background. While he grew up under Communism, he hardly suffered as did Vaclav Havel or fought as did Viktor Orban. Babis was employed by then state-owned Petrimex, a monopoly importer of oil and chemical products into Slovakia. In the early 90s he rose to be on it’s board, and established his own subsidiary called Agrofert. Babis has lately acquired a reputation for employing many former spooks, ex-police detectives and others, well-versed in the sinister arts of manipulation and control, often mastered at the feet of Soviets. These are not the actions of a man who seeks to rid his nation of corruption, as Babis claims to be. His ANO Party includes anti-corruption has part of what it wants. Albeit, his ANO Party is vague.
Foreign press have been painting Babis in and unflattering way for years. Foreign Policy darkly notes that Babis is changing Czech politics, “one that is more preoccupied with business interests than safeguarding democracy.” The Atlantic mutters that Babis’ election raises, “questions about the state of constitutional democracy.” As if the rise of one man is a threat to Europe.
Often described by the media as ‘Czech Donald Trump,’ 63-year-old Babis, the country’s second-richest man, won 30 percent of the vote, securing him the Prime-ministership in the next coalition government. Despite an ongoing criminal investigation over his business dealings and the lingering allegations of his collaborating with the Czechoslovak communist-era secret police, many Czech voters preferred voting for Babis than other pro-EU career politicians. “Trump-style billionaire populist on brink of power in Czech Republic,” wrote the leftist UK newspaper the Guardian.
Babis may be less a Czech Trump and more a typical power seeker. He’s had a willingness in the past to use shadowy means to get what he wants. No one is quite certain how he amassed his fortune from the 1990s until today. His ownership of large pieces of Czech media is likely more than dangerous. He has no history as any kind of classical liberal or conservative. His claimed goal is to ‘run government like a business.’ But government isn’t a business, it can’t operate like one. Government pays no price in terms of loss of market share or customers if it fails government’s purpose is to uphold the rules of the game, not to play the game.
To his credit, Babis has been a critic of the EU. But he only turned against mass migration in the last 4 years, which means it may only be a means to power.
Media fears of some sort of authoritarianism in European nations is largely misplaced in most cases. Babis doesn’t seem to have the conviction of Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders or Nigel Farage, or the appeal of Trump. But he does have a lot of money, dubious associates, and a desire for power. I can’t say I’m certain what this spell out, but I doubt that Babis will prove to be good for his country. While he may close its’ borders, he may also end up owning most the nation. The former is not worth the latter.
Babis is being lumped into a large group of political leaders around the world. Along with Wilders in Holland, Duterte in the Phillipines, Trump in the USA and Boris Johnson in the UK, Babis supposedly represents the rise of a threatening kind of populism of the Right.
First, most of these people are not clearly on the Right, or even the Left. Le Pen favors French socialist welfare, but also believes in secure borders. Duterte, who is quite popular with Filipinos, has veered towards China, rather than the USA. Babis, as we’ve seen, has little to recommend himself to conservatives, apart from some criticism of Brussels.
Babis is not the disease
The perception of an anti-establishment surge has to be maintained, to uphold the narrative that world democracy is threatened by ordinary people. Well, as Mencken said, democracy is the theory that the common man should get what he wants, and get it good and hard. What we’re seeing the world politics is less an authoritarian surge than a dislike of political standards since the end of the Cold War. Many are tired of well-heeled and well-connected elites, living far away, declaring how the world should operate for us. Many don’t want to way things have been, they want something they think will be better for them.
Babis is a symptom of something larger, he’s not the disease. The disease is our global ruling class.