In 2013, Babis’s party, the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), an acronym that spells “yes” in Czech, won 18.65 percent in national parliamentary elections. Its pitch was straight out of the new-party-led-by-a-businessman playbook: Trust me, I’m a successful businessman, and I know how to get things done. The party became a junior partner in a coalition with the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Babis became finance minister.
1. It’s the economy, stupid
Economic performance is a key shaper of voting behavior in Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, voters are exceptionally attentive to economic performance, a phenomenon political scientist Andrew Roberts called “hyperaccountability.” And just now, the Czech Republic is thriving economically. GDP is growing at its highest level since the economic crisis of 2007; at 2.9 percent, unemployment is the lowest in the European Union; and the state budget is in surplus for the first time in more than two decades.
Although Babis left his post in the finance ministry this year, ANO has been selling the story of a successful finance minister who improved ordinary Czechs’ economic positions.
2. Remaining anti-establishment while in power
Political scientists Duncan McDonnell and Daniele Albertazzi’s study of Italy and Switzerland shows that parties employing anti-establishment and populist appeals face a choice when they get into power: Either shed the anti-elite appeals and become mainstream or try to maintain a protest stance and outsider appeal.
Babis has followed the second strategy. Despite being finance minister and a deputy prime minister, he has continued to project himself as apart from the system. He frequently criticizes the “old” established parties — including his coalition partners — contrasting his experience of the effective world of business with the dirty world of politics. When he was accused of tax evasion and sacked as finance minister in May, he claimed it was part of a conspiracy to remove him from politics, a charge he used to bolster his anti-establishment credibility.
Czechs have long been highly disillusioned with established politicians and parties. As a result, Babis’s strategy of contrasting himself with the allegedly corrupt and incompetent established parties has been effective.
3. Populism that’s not only about protest but also delivering the goods
ANO’s pitch, however, has not just been an anti-establishment appeal. In 2013, the party’s populist criticism of the “political class” was accompanied by a simple promise of a better future “bude líp” (“it will be better” in Czech) inspired by Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can.”
In the run-up to this election, the party’s marketing experts invested heavily in presenting real or alleged successes of ANO’s ministers. Those claims have included the country’s economic performance, modernizing the military’s equipment and passing a new law on funeral services — all claimed as fulfilling ANO promises.
Difficult to place on a left-right spectrum, ANO presents its lack of ideological clarity as a virtue. Its election manifesto, as political scientist Sean Hanley remarked, is “an anodyne grab-bag of technocratic promises.”
4. Mingling with the people
Most Czech political parties have turned into electoral machines that are apparently only interested in voters at election time. Babis — acutely aware of the power of his anti-politics appeal — has invested a lot of energy into attending public events across the country, including concerts, sporting occasions, and — in a country with the world’s highest per capita beer consumption — pubs. He used this strategy through his electoral term but intensified it after being removed as finance minister, emphasizing that this gave him more time to do what he loves: mingling with the people.
He amplified his populist presence through social media, especially Facebook, displaying his man-of-the-people appeal through pictures of himself drinking beer, wearing a fireman’s uniform and even urinating at a concert. And he has used social media to publicize his book ‘What I dream about when I have the chance to dream, (“O Cem snim, kdyz nahodou spim”) which gives his 2035 vision for “our children.” The title highlights not just where he wants the country to go but also that he works so hard he does not have time to daydream.
5. Keeping the party together
Scandal has surrounded Babis. He’s been accused of corrupt business practices and tax fraud and has been linked to communist-era security services. When other new parties in Central and Eastern Europe have been faced with the choices and compromises of holding office or the challenges of scandal, they have often split and splintered.
ANO, however, has avoided major splits. That’s partly because Babis has a very centralized, leader-focused party organization. As political scientist Lubomir Kopecek has noted, Babis is more an “owner” than a “chairman” of his party. Most of the party’s key posts are filled by his close business collaborators. The party employs an HR specialist who administers psychological testing to vet prospective members. At times, especially during the party’s congresses, ANO resembles a Babis personality cult.
Will Babis win?
Europe has had a series of recent elections that have confounded pollsters. Many Czech voters say they have yet to make up their minds. One must therefore be cautious in making predictions.
However, around a quarter of likely voters say they will vote for ANO. Even if this dips and the Czech government is formed without including Babis’s party, the past four years show how a party run by a businessman can be electorally successful after its initial breakthrough. That lesson may resonate well beyond the confines of Central Europe.
Vlastimil Havlik is associate professor of political science at Masaryk University in Brno and a Fulbright fellow at Northwestern University.
Tim Haughton is associate professor and head of the department of political science and international studies at the University of Birmingham.