Can Andrej Babiš’s ANO movement stay the course?
The spectacular rise and fall of new anti-establishment parties has been one of the constants of Central European politics over the last two decades. But, despite the headlines, the region’s most successful new protest parties have not been right populists surging in Western Europe. The successes of Hungary’s Jobbik or, more recently (and more modestly) Marian Kotelba’s People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) are more the exceptions than the rule.
Instead the big winners have often been loose-knit, personality-driven groupings with a vague rhetoric of fighting corruption, speeding up reform and “doing politics differently”. Variously led by businessmen, journalists, technocrats or celebrities, who had deftly reinvented themselves as anti-politicians, this new breed of anti-establishment party lambasted conventional party politicians as a failed self-serving cartel in the best populist style, but retained sufficient mainstream credibility to appeal to large chunks of the electorate and move straight into government.
One of the most striking examples of such a party is the Czech Republic’s ANO (‘Yes’) movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš. Founded in 2011, ANO swept into parliament and into government in elections in 2013 winning 18.7% of the vote with a hastily assembled ticket of technocrats, businesspeople and figures from culture and the media. Mr Babiš is currently Finance minister in an uneasy centre-left coalition and until recently has regularly topped opinion polls.
‘We are not politicians…’
ANO’s pitch was that it was a non-ideological citizens’ movement of practical doers (‘We’re not politicians, we do work’) which could kick-start positive social change (‘Yes, things will get better’). Babiš himself the owner of the profitable agro-food conglomerate Agrofert, spoke of running the country like a successful firm. His bought-in PR consultants hammered these messages home in a well-funded off-the-shelf campaign. Image-makers spun Babiš’s bad grammar and baggy sweaters into the persona of a plain speaking businessman reluctantly pushed into public life by his frustration with corrupt politicians and the dire state of the country.
The truth was somewhat more complex. Though little known to the public before 2011, Babiš was a long-time member of the Czech Republic’s post-communist business elite with extensive contacts among the politicians and parties he later attacked. The early sources of his initial wealth were uncertain and his pre-1989 background as part of the economic nomenklatura – and long-running accusations of collaboration with the communist-era secret police (later dismissed by the courts)– sat uneasily with promises of a new kind of politics. The launch of ANO, some analysts suggested, may have been motivated as much by Babiš’s concern over political threats to his business empire as public spirited concern for the fate of the nation.
Whatever the exact credentials of Babiš’s movement, its rise marked the death knell of the Czech Republic’s previous, apparently ‘standard’ West European looking system of democratic party politics based on a stable line-up of free-market conservatives, Social Democrats, Communists and Christian Democrats. Despite the country’s relative wealth and strong pre-communist traditions of party organisation, mainstream parties that took the stage in the early 1990s failed to put down real organisational roots; win over a core loyal voters; stem political corruption – including their own capture by corrupt vested interests; or, despite EU membership, to deliver enough economic growth to make catch-up with Western Europe more than a distant prospect.
The mystery of ANO
But five years on Mr Babiš and his movement and his movement are in some ways as much of a mystery as ever. The view amongst many political scientists studying Central and Eastern Europe was that the new breed of anti-establishment parties like ANO would rise and fall in quick succession. Vague programmes, almost non-existent party organisation and disparate – and often politically inexperienced – sets of leaderships set them on a course for destructive infighting and rapid post-election disintegration.
Anti-establishment parties that entered government broke up especially quickly. As well as struggling with the realities of policy-making and coalition politics, they lost their trump card with voters by themselves becoming part of the hated political establishment. Not uncommonly a new set of anti-politicians and new protest parties with a similar anti-establishment, anti-corruption message would stepped in to fill the vacuum and offering frustrated electorates the chance for repeat protest voting. Cycles of new party rise and fall can be strongly detected in in successive elections states such as Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovenia.
With the rise of ANO in 2013, the Czech Republic seemed to be on a similar course. The previous, 2010 election had seen the unexpected entry into the Czech parliament of a previously obscure citizens’ grouping, Public Affairs (VV), on a platform of internet democracy, fighting corruption and killing of established parties as ‘political dinosaurs’. Rewarded with a place in government in a centre-right coalition, within a year VV fell apart in textbook fashion as its legislators proved fractious, its ministers incompetent and its key financial backer to have a well-documented hidden agenda to use the party as a vehicle for his own business interests.
With a full parliamentary term almost up and the 2017 parliamentary elections coming into view, we might expect Babiš and ANO to be in a similar sorry state – and to see a new set of anti-politics movements and parties emerging over the horizon. The Czech Republic has no shortage of rich men willing to back pet projects for good governance or political reform.
But despite frequent replacements of ANO ministers; a rocky relationship with its bigger coalition partner, the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) of prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka; Babiš’s shoot-from-the-hip style and occasional media outbursts and a scandal over apparent misuse of EU subsidies at his flagship eco-farm, the movement seems to be in rude political health. The movement has gained support since 2013, consistently topping or coming second in opinion polls; suffered no defections in parliament; and established itself as a major player in the European and municipal elections in 2014. Babiš’s own approval ratings have held up well.
Why has ANO not crashed and burned like Public Affairs and similar protest movements-turned-governing-party elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe? And does its surprising endurance suggest that it can go further and reshape the Czech political system?
Success breeds success
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Babiš has proved a cannier political operator than other businessmen-turned-anti-politicians, learning both from their mistakes of Public Affairs and from his own. He quickly realised that rather than being a shady behind-the-scenes sponsor, he would need to invent and put himself forward as a public figure– a path well-trodden by other billionaires turned anti-politician from Ross Perot to Silvio Berlusconi. He also took on-board the advice of media professionals, doing nothing to smooth out Slovak accent (an indispensable part of the Babiš brand), but dropping the rhetoric of running the Czech Republic like a company (voters were uncomfortable with the authoritarian overtones)
After initially failing to summon a popular grassroots movement into existence when he first stepped into the media limelight to claim the mantel of anti-corruption crusader in 2011, he tried unsuccessfully to forge alliances with regional independents’ groupings ahead of provincial elections in 2012. Finally, ANO was reorganised top-down as a national political party to contest parliamentary elections (then scheduled for 2014) drawing on the recruitment techniques, personnel and resources of Babiš’s Agrofert empire. PR, opinion research and political marketing were bought in off-the-shelf from external consultants.
As the political project of a billionaire ANO also had few problems drumming up the resources for needing for organisation and campaign advertising on a national scale.
The party was also able to attract credible and competent figures from the worlds of business and public administration as lead candidates and (later) ministers, than small scale populist start-ups like Public Affairs. ANO’s support has also been shored up by its status as a major government party which seems to have delivered in office: the Czech Republic has strong economic growth and the lowest unemployment in the EU and has seen some progress passing transparency and anti-corruption laws under the current government. Some new anti-establishment parties like ANO, it seems, can just get lucky.
The right formula for survival?
But can a party like ANO survive in the longer term? A closer look at Central Europe’s party-political landscape suggests that sometimes they can. The region’s politics are just a series of “hurricane seasons” where anti-establishment challengers regularly blow in, wreck or demolish existing structures and then blow out themselves again.
Some of the region’s one time anti-establishment challengers have put down roots and stuck around. One of doing so seems to be to work out a longer-term, clearly defined ideology which taps in to a country’s underlying social and political divisions, which tend to be stable even when on the surface party politics looks chaotic. Slovakia’s governing populist social democratic party Smer, for example, was once a vague, politically centrist newcomer, while Poland’s illiberal conservative-national Law and Justice made its initial electoral breakthrough in 2001 as a pro-law-and-order, anti-corruption party.
The most obvious vacuum in Czech politics on the centre-right. The two parties of traditional pro-market right the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09 have both struggled to reinvent themselves or recapture significant electoral support, important parts of which were lost to ANO in 2013. While Babiš – who has bought up several important Czech national newspapers – resists comparisons with Silvio Berlusconi, one clear option for long-term party consolidation would be the Forza Italia option: transforming ANO in a new broad movement of liberal centre-right. Babiš’s has himself several times spoken of a future two-party system in the Czech Republic with ANO taking the role of a ‘centre-right party sensitive to social issues’. Despite sitting in coalition with the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the movement is marked out both by its business origins and more pro-business stance and has an antagonistic relationship with ČSSD.
However, Babiš and ANO have so far shown little inclination to move towards a clearer ideology to make over the anti-political image that propelled them into government. The movement did join the European liberal grouping ALDE and establish a party think-tank, the Institute for Politics and Society (IPPS) 2014. However, ALDE, whose members range from centre-left ecologists to ardent free marketeers, has provided an undemanding home for ill-defined centrist movements from Central and Eastern Europe, while the IPPS has published policy briefings but done nothing to define a party philosophy for ANO.
Addressing the question of the movement’s and ideology and values at its March 2015 congress Babiš could state only that it was part of the ‘European mainstream’ committed to the freedom of the individual, human rights, democracy and social solidarity. Instead much of the speech defined the movement in familiar anti-political terms as an alternative to ‘traditional parties’, ‘a long-term project to put right the mistakes of previous governments and to return the people’s trust in politics’ which thought it ‘made no sense to hide behind ideological labels’.
Tellingly, alongside the guests from European liberal parties were representatives of the US ‘No Labels’ movement, which seeks to replace partisan conflict with non-partisan problem-solving. A year on in a keynote speech to ANO’s self-styled Programmatic Conference in May 2016, Babiš defined the movement as replacing outlooks of left and right with ‘common sense’ and returned to the theme of the Czech Republic being like a commercial company (this time a family firm concerned with all of its stakeholders, not just the bottom line). Politics, he told his, listeners was revolting and ‘much more disgusting than I thought’.
Putting down organisational roots
The second source of long-term survival is to put down real organisational roots. Political parties in post-communist Central Europe famously lack the organisational reach, membership and party traditions of their West European counterparts. And when they do appear to have some degree of nationwide organisation, this can often prove hollow or illusory. Michal Klíma’s recent study of Czech parties, for example, graphically relates how the seemingly sizeable regional organisations of both the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats were inflated by hundreds of ‘dead souls’ recruited by corrupt local business groups intent on ‘party capture’. Butmem when real, grassroots organisation makes a difference. For example, although demographic trends are against them, the Czech Republic’s Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) have both stubbornly held on in parliament (and in KDU-ČSL’s case made a comeback) with the help of a well-rooted network of local organisations.
Whether new parties persist can depend less on their political ideology (or lack of) or even the raw numbers of members and activists they can initially pull in, but on the ‘organisational ideology’ of their leaders party-building strategies their leaders adopt. This can prove tricky. A form of organisation that can at first work brilliantly when fighting an insurgent anti-establishment election campaign can prove disastrous for surviving in the longer term.
On the whole, this does not bode very well for ANO. Although it labels itself a ‘movement’, the party is a top-down down creation formed in what the political scietnist Nicole Bolleyer terms the “entrepreneurial outsider” pattern – “outsider” because Babiš (albeit very much an economic insider) was not a politician in an established party, “entrepreneurial” not just because Babiš was a businessman who used his companies and private wealth to set-up a party, but in the sense that its programme and message were crafted to fill a gap in the electoral market – in this case an unmet demand for anti-establishment protest and political reform.
Mr Babiš’s ‘organisational ideology’ was drawn partly from his experience in business. Its membership has been kept deliberately low– a mere 2859 members in May 2016 – with a waiting list of 1120 – as well as some 7000 ‘registered sympathisers’. Joining the party is more akin to undergoing a selection for a job with a large firm than signing up to be a political activist. Applicants for party membership need to submit a full CV and prove they have a clean criminal record and no unpaid debts. Party organizers and candidates also have to do psychological aptitude tests.
A small, carefully managed membership combined with a highly centralised structure concentrating power in the hands of the party’s leader, founder and funder have ensured stability over the past four years – but they have done so by eliminating any internal debate or internal influence on the running of the party by its members. The leadership initially elected at the party’s first two congresses in 2012 and 2013 quit when it became evident that they had no independent influence at all. A similar dynamic has played out in the run-in September 2016 regional elections with breakaway movements set up by disgruntled groups of ANO members in several localities in protest against top-down selection of candidates.
Can a privatised party last?
Any party needs some semblance of nationwide public participation some organisational roots, however, shallow in the society it represents to appear a “proper” party. Czech party and constitutional law certainly envisages that political parties as democratically-run membership organisations with broad citizen participation and links to the wider community. A party also needs some members (or least close sympathisers) for practical purposes of winning representation (and hence power) in local and regional government. In a Czech context a national party need several thousand candidates to mount a credible national challenger local elections
However, it is theoretically possible for a party to function perfectly well for an extended period with low – or even no – membership staffed by paid employees and bankrolled by the wealth of super-rich individual. As Czech political scientists have pointed out ANO comes quite close to the ideal of such as a ‘business firm’ party.
Such a party could continue to operate – and even grow – for an extended period, while its political luck holds, but will be vulnerable to shocks and may potential to unwind rapidly when momentum of being a new force running against the establishment will eventually dissipates and more difficult political or economic times come along.
ANO has three main vulnerabilities. Firstly, despite the fiction of being a ‘movement’ led by a team of approachable non-politicians, the ‘business-firm’ model of a privately owned party will come to be seen as as illegitimate as the traditional parties captured by corrupt private interests in the 2000s. Established parties’ attacks on Babiš’s enormous conflicts of interests and alleged ‘oligarchisation’ of politics and the media have so far had limited impact on the electorate. But in the hands of new or different leaders, especially if the economy deteriorates, the discourse of reforming politics and fighting vested interests may sharply rebound against ANO.
There is also no guarantee that ANO’s unusual structure and origins will leave it immune to the informal interest groups that ate away at an earlier, post-1989 generation of parties. As Babiš has himself conceded, despite careful management, ANO’s local organisations are starting to become closed and clannish echoing the earlier experience, of the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats whose local organisations proved so susceptible to takeover by local business groups.
Secondly, the inherent tension between Babiš’s de facto “ownership” of the party and members’ expectation (however few they may be) that they will be able to exercise influence. Any political party will regularly experience differences over its policy and direction, which need to be settled through a more complex set of rules than simply the principle ‘I’m paying, so I decide’. The fact that Babiš is likely no longer to be his party’s sole source of finance will lead critics to mount a more determined internal challenge, rather than just exit the party. As a parliamentary party ANO now receives significant levels of state funding (66.5 million crowns in 2015, although debts to Babiš the real level of the party’s independent assets). Changes in party funding rules, will restrict the extent to which Babiš can subsidise the party from his own pocket (or those of the companies he owns).
Thirdly, there is little prospect of building ANO into a more durable party without its founder and leader relinquishing of control. Making ANO an ideologically better defined liberal or centre-right party would require intellectual and organisation input from others, that Babiš could not control – and to which he could not easily contribute: unlike earlier big name political figures such as Miloš Zeman or Václav Klaus, Babiš cannot really ‘do’ ideology. The building of genuine grassroots party organisation and membership –assuming that it could be organised top-down – would create new
It is not impossible to conceive a scenario which Andrej Babiš would voluntarily exit the political stage. His disgust and frustration with deal-making and coalition-building involved in democratic politics are clearly not entirely feigned. And, as a man well used to closing down or selling off poorly performing part of his empire, there is no reason to think that one day might not do give the same treatment to ANO. In June 2016 told an interviewer than he would rather leave politics, than be in opposition.
Nor, if truly large scale scandal ever erupted around his business empire, is it impossible to imagine Babiš retreating from public life under the weight of anti-corruption and investigations. ANO was put politically on the back foot this June by controversial reforms – supported by Social Democrat interior minister Milan Chovanec – to bring police units fighting corruption and organised crime under a single umbrella body – a move that some Czech journalists saw as directly threatening Babiš.
While Babiš’s eventual departure – however it took place – would, in theory, open up the field for ANO’s transformation into a party with better prospects to stay the course, this would (as Babiš himself anticipates) in all likelihood prove so destabilising that movement would simply collapse or fragment – probably leaving the Czech Republic with a landscape of small warring centrist and centre-right parties of the kind seen today in neighbouring Slovakia
A Czech Orbán?
Andrej Babiš is often lumped together with conservative populists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński or Recep Erdoğan in Turkey by the West European media. A quick glance at ANO suggests that he is very far from being Czech Orbán in the making. ANO always been very far from the kind of support that could deliver a Polish or Hungarian-style absolute majority and is slipping back in polls. More tellingly, however, the organisationally brittle and ideologically amorphous nature of the movement contrasts sharply with the well organised, socially-well rooted conservative-nationalist parties that have sustained drives towards illiberal projects
ANO’s poor prospects of becoming a dominant governing party – and the difficulty of building it into a more solid party without ceding power – suggest that Mr Babiš’s best long-term strategy will be rely on ability to fuse economic, political and media power while he still has sizeable electoral support. As with the previous party system centred on ODS and Social Democrats, the Czech Republic is again likely to have a façade of competitive party pluralism distorted by powerful informal interests – although with a shifting cast of parties and more powerful oligarchical interest groups.
This article was originally published in V4Revue