Is there a Czech Berlusconi in the wings?

Political afterlife in Prague? Photo: Frederico Saggini / Wikicommons

A recent report I read suggested that the travails of Public Affairs (VV) party had put voters in the Czech Republic off new political parties: VV, which burst from nowhere onto the political scene in the 2010 elections as an establishment, anti-corruption party, has  rapidly, but not totally, unwound in the two years since as a junior partner – and weakest link – in the current centre-right coalition in Prague.

Lax party discipline, lack of organisation; some very dodgy and incompetent ministers; and rapid confirmation of what many had lon suspected – that the party was a pet project  ABL security company and its owner Vít Bárta, originally conceived to forward their commercial interests in Prague.

But the new party habit, once acquired, can be hard to kick. Numerous small left-wing parties seem, relatively speaking, to be prospering at the political margins and, more remarkably, there still seems to an appetite for  new businessmen anti-politicians peddling an anti-corruption and anti-establishment message. The modern voter’s political crack cocaine…

In recent weeks and months two candidates have stepped forward to offere a new improved version of Public Affairs formula:

Anti-political protest voring: Addictive with short term high? Photo: Pyschonaught/Wikicommons

The first is Andrej Babiš, the super-wealthy owner of the Agrofert food and chemicals conglomerate. Originally hailing from Slovakia, but moving to Prague as a student, Mr Babiš made his fortune in the murky business and political environment of 1990s with all the attendant political connections that you would expect.

His entry into politics – which from what can be gathered was planned quite carefully beforehand – came with an interview in September last year with the Czech equivalent of the FT, Hospodářské noviny, in which he spoke out against levels of corruption in the Czech Republic and called for the creation new civic mobilisation akin in some way to the Civic Forum movement of 1989.

He was, of course, a rather unlikely dissident – the son of a Communist foreign trade official, who had lived abroad for periods in Switzerland and North Africa for periods as boy and later embarked on a the same career. And not only was he himself (naturally) a Party member, but he was also listed as a secret police informer.

But, as he explained in a clever folksy, what-you-see-is-what-you-get appearence on Czech TV’s Jan Kraus Talkshow, this was all already well known (no relevations in store then) and his dealings with StB, ever present in an areas dealing with non-communist world,  were do with mismanaged phosphate imports and commerical contacts, not hunting down dissidents.

The result: Akce nespokojených občanů 2011 (ANO2011), the Discontented Citizens’ Initiative, a citizens’ grouping founded  by Babiš, which combined the internet based organising tactics of VV with current vogue for  new political organisation to have catchy numbers-and-letters acronyms (‘Ano’ = ‘Yes’).

ANO2011′s organisation, running straight out of Agrofert headquarters, however seemed to be pure Forza Italia, as does his argument that the Czech Republic could be managed by practical businesspeople in the manner of a firm, although the is also a nod towards liberal reformist rhetoric that has washed around the ex-dissident centre of Czech politics almost as long as anyone can remember: ANO2011 is, for example, to be  ‘a civic movement composed of trustworthy independent personalities’ opposing vested political interests (all other parties, major and minor, including VV and President Klaus)

All this is rather contrast with the time and care Vít Bárta put in creating VV as a party with semblance of autononous existence and a quite serious and detailed political programme, not without some good idea.

The ANO2011 Appeal is a vague document promising in very non-specific terms to fight corruption, make the rule of law work properly and bring about Swedish or Swiss levels of prosperity. Making a virtue of this – like many new parties – it gets round this by presenting it in terms of transparency and openess, promising consultation with the public, appealing to citizens for their ideas about what should be done.

Inevitably, of course, despite predictable early denials, the movement has plans to becoming a party: it will contest the regional elections later this year with an eye to breaking through to national power in 2012.

A programme of roundtables and events has already kicked off and the movement/party is already recruiting political managers in the regions and hoovering up minor parties and regional groupings for a spot of astro-turfing. Given the scale of Babiš’s resources – his personal wealth and the size of Agrofert’s dwarf that of Bárta – and the postive feedback he received in initial polling (around a third of respondents saying they might vote for him), such programme- and party building may yield quicker than experced dividends, making him may be a force to be reckoned with.

Tomio Okamura Photo: Podzemnik/Wikicommons

A second perhaps more intriguing potential newconer, mooted as a possible presidential candidate by the latest issues of the newsmagazine Respekt, is the Japanese-Czech businessman Tomio Okamura. The product of a fractured and difficult bi-cultural background, Mr Okamura – who has lived most of his life in the Czech Republic and is a native speaker of the language, is a self-made businessman best known to the public as spokesman for the Czech tourism industry and to TV viewers as part of the line-up of investors on Den-D, the local version of Dragon’s Den.

Although more modestly resourced than either Babiš or Bárta,  Mr Okamura has been similarly building up his public profile, writing a bestselling book about his life and business and a more recent one with the Macheviallian sounding title The Art of Governing.

This, according to Respekt is a mishmash of reformist go-getting sentiment with a nod towards morality and traditional values, interwar Czechoslovakia and (more worryingly) some of the Czech radical right’s nostrums for resettling Roma -  Mr Okamura’s take on inter-ethnic relations in the Czech Republic seems to be that racism is not an obstacles to success and that  minorities should fit in and get with things (as he has).

Inevitably, there is also the same Berlusconi-eque anti-political rhetoric of bringing common sense business solution to political problems found with Babiš, whose entry into politics Okamura welcomes. As he tells readers of his blog with characteristic up-frontness

… the idea of running the state like a firm (firemního vedení státu)… [is] a proposition that fascinates me… The state is one big firm and there is no better solution than it being run by pros.

Experienced people with a sense of material and criminal responsibility. People who have come through in an open selection process, not through the backstage negotiation of party leaderships or regional party cliques.

Bar some exceptional political events and an injection serious financial and political backing, Okamura is unlikely to be a serious contender for the presidency come the Czech Republic’s first direct elections in 2013. He himself seems to be talking (more realistically) of a running at a Senate seat as an independent.

Okamura on Babiš seen through Wordle.net

But despite some hubris and naivity, Mr Okamura has played skillfully on his unusual status as very recognisably Czech  figure who is also at the same an unusual and somewhat unplaceable outsider. The same kind of play helped make Barack Obama – not for nothing is Mr Okamura’s first book called The Czech Dream -  or, more omenously, Peru’s outsider technocrat, turned authoritarian populist President of 1990s, Alberto Fujimori.

Czechs-  like European voters generally these days I guess -  have weakness for anti-political pitches.  The technocratic ex-caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer (a statistician not a businessman by background), for example, is likely to prove a popular presidential candidate

Followers of Czech politics of long memories may even remember that in their earliest days the Civic Democrats  – now  often reviled as corrupt, political hacks – based their appeal on an ethos business-like organisation and professionalism (as Magdaléna Hadjiisky ably explains in a recent issue of Sociologický časopis).

All in all, if you are in the Czech political futures market and looking at the stock of businessman-antipolitician start-ups, I can only say ‘Buy!’.

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