The spectacular rise and fall of new parties has been one of the hallmarks of Central European politics over the last two decades. Despite the headlines, the region’s most successful new protest parties have not generally been right populists, but loose-knit, personality-driven groupings with a vague agenda of fighting corruption, speeding up reform or “doing politics differently”. 1
One of the most striking examples is the Czech Republic’s ANO (‘Yes’) movement founded in 2011 by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš. ANO swept into parliament and into government in 2013, winning 18.7% of the vote with a hastily assembled ticket of technocrats, businesspeople and high profile culture and the media figures. Babiš became finance minister in an uneasy centre-left coalition.
ANO’s pitched itself a non-ideological citizens’ movement of practical doers (‘We’re not politicians, we do work’) which would kick-start positive change (‘Yes, things will get better’). Babiš, who owns the vast agro-food conglomerate Agrofert and important media holdings, spoke of running Czechia like a successful firm, assuming the persona of a plain speaking businessman reluctantly pushed into politics by frustration with corrupt politicians. 2
The truth was somewhat more complex. Though then little known to the public, Babiš was a long-time member of the Czech Republic’s post-communist business elite. His background in the communist-era economic nomenklatura and the mysterious early sources of his wealth raised questions made him an unlikely reformer. 3
Whatever the credentials of Babiš and his movement, their 2013 electoral breakthrough marked the death knell of the Czech Republic’s previously stable party system based on a Western European-looking line-up of free-market conservatives, Social Democrats, Communists and Christian Democrats. 4
The mystery of ANO
The conventional view amongst political scientists was that the anti-establishment parties like ANO would rise and fall in quick succession, blowing in and out in more or less regular political ‘hurricane season’. 5
Vague programmes, almost non-existent party organisation and disparate – often totally inexperienced – leaders invariably led to infighting and rapid post-election disintegration, especially when parties that ventured into government. A new set of anti-politicians and protest parties with a similar anti-establishment or anti-corruption message would then fill the vacuum, giving frustrated electorates the chance a repeat bout of protest voting. New parties rose and fell across successive elections in states such as Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. 6
With the rise of ANO the Czech Republic seemed to be entering a similar cycle. The 2010 Czech election had seen the unexpected entry into parliament of a previously obscure citizens’ grouping, Public Affairs (VV), on a platform of internet democracy, anti-corruption and killing old ‘dinosaur’ parties. 7
Rewarded with a place in government in a centre-right coalition, within a year, however, Public Affairs fell apart in textbook fashion as its legislators proved fractious, its ministers incompetent and its main backer to have a hidden agenda to use the party to promote his own business interests. 8
With the 2017 parliamentary elections coming into view, we might expect to find Babiš and ANO in a similar sorry state – and to see a new set of anti-establishment movements on the horizon. But despite frequent replacements of ANO ministers; 9 a rocky relationship with its bigger coalition partner, the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD); Babiš’s shoot-from-the-hip style and a scandal over apparent misuse of EU subsidies at his flagship eco-farm, 10 the movement seems to be in rude political health with good poll numbers and a buoyant personal ratings for Babiš himself. 11
How the movement defied political gravity?
Babiš has proved a cannier political operator than other businessmen-turned-anti-politicians. He realised that rather than being a shady behind-the-scenes sponsor, he would need to invent himself as a public figure. He was also flexible, quickly re-organising when initial plans for a grassroots movement and alliances with regional independents flopped.
The resources and personnel of Agrofert clearly offered ANO an advantage over small scale populist start-ups like Public Affairs and helped attract credible, competent figures from business and public administration to be candidates and (later) ministers.
ANO’s support has also been shored up by its status as a government party which can claim to have delivered: the Czech Republic has strong economic growth and low unemployment and has seen some progress passing transparency and anti-corruption laws. 12
The right formula for survival?
But can a pop-up party like ANO, however well financed, survive in the longer term? A closer look at Central Europe’s party-political landscape suggests that, with a judicious mix of ideology and organisation, it can be done.
A protest party can anchor itself if it can take on clearly defined ideology tapping in to a country’s underlying social and political divisions. These tend to be stable even when on the surface party politics looks chaotic. 13
Slovakia’s governing populist social democratic party Direction – Social Democracy (Smer – sociálna demokracia), for example, was once a vague, politically centrist newcomer, 14 while Poland’s illiberal conservative-national Law and Justice (PiS) made its initial electoral breakthrough in 2001 as a law-and-order, anti-corruption party. 15
The most obvious vacuum in Czech politics is on the right. The two parties of traditional pro-market right, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP09, have both struggled to reinvent themselves after an electoral drubbing in 2013, losing important parts of their vote to ANO. Andrej Babiš has spoken several times a future two-party system in the Czech Republic with ANO taking the role of a ‘centre-right party sensitive to social issues’. However, he has so far shown little inclination to make over the anti-political that propelled him into government three years. Addressing the question of his movements values and beliefs at its March 2015 congress Babiš could state only that it was part of the ‘European mainstream’ and was committed to the freedom of the individual, human rights, democracy and social solidarity.
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’. A year on in his keynote speech to ANO’s May 2016 ‘Programmatic Conference’ Babiš defined the movement as replacing 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). 16
Putting down organisational roots
Political parties in post-communist Central Europe famously lack the organisational reach, membership and party traditions of their West European counterparts. 17
And where it does exist, nationwide party organisation can be hollow or illusory. Michal Klíma’s recent study of Czech parties, for example, relates how the seemingly sizeable organisations of both the Civic Democrats (ODS) and Social Democrats were inflated by hundreds of ‘dead souls’ – paid or paper members recruited by corrupt local business groups intent on ‘party capture’. 18
But when real, grassroots organisation makes a difference. 19 Both Czech Communists (KSČM) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) have stubbornly held on in parliament (and in KDU-ČSL’s case made a comeback) with the help of party organisations with a real grassroots presence. Indeed, some political scientists argue that whether new parties persist depend less on their ideology (or lack of) or their raw numbers of members, but on the ‘organisational ideology’ and party-building strategies of their leaders. 20
But 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. Mr Babiš’s ‘organisational ideology’ was drawn from his experience in business. The party’s membership has been kept deliberately low – a mere 2859 members 21 and waiting list of 1120 in May 2016, as well as some 7000 ‘registered sympathisers’. 22
Joining the party is more akin to undergoing a job selection process than signing up to be a political activist. Applicants for ANO 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. 23
This small, carefully managed membership combined with ANO’s highly centralised structure which concentrates power in the hands of the party’s leader have ensured stability over the past four years. But it has done so by eliminating any internal debate or influence on the running of the party by its members. The leadership elected at ANO’s first congress in 2012 quit en masse when its intended role as a passive appendage became evident. A similar dynamic is now playing out in the run-up to the October 2016 regional elections with the appearance in several localities breakaway movements set up by disgruntled ANO members. 24
Can a privatised party last?
It is theoretically possible for a party bankrolled by one super-rich individual to function perfectly well with low – or even no – membership, staffed instead by paid employees and consultants. 25
But it can do so only while its political luck holds. When economic troubles or scandal hit, however, such a party may unwind rapidly, especially as the sheen of being an outsider fighting traditional established parties gradually dissipates.
ANO has three particular vulnerabilities. First, despite the PR fiction of a ‘movement’ led by a team of approachable non-politicians, its ‘business-firm’ model of a privately owned party may come to be seen as illegitimate as the first generation of parties captured by corrupt private interests in the 2000s. 26
There is also no guarantee that ANO’s unusual structure will immunise against penetration of 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 as those of the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats once were. 27
Second, there is an inherent tension between Babiš’s de facto ownership of the party and the possibility that members’ (however docile and few in number they may be) will want use the formally democratic mechanisms in ANO to assert their influence. Any political party will experience differences over 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’. 28
Third, there is little prospect of building ANO into a more durable party without its founder, funder and leader relinquishing 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 – or contribute to. A more developed organisation and large grassroots membership, even if it could be brought about, would create centres of power and demands to be heard that would see it founder’s control decline sharply.
It is perhaps not altogether impossible to conceive of a scenario which Andrej Babiš would voluntarily exit the political stage. His disgust and frustration with the deal-making and compromise of democratic politics are clearly not entirely unfeigned. As a man used to divesting himself of under-performing assets, there is no reason to think that one day he might pull the plug on ANO, if it fails to pay political dividends. Indeed, Babiš recently told an interviewer directly than he would rather leave politics than be in opposition. 29 Nor, if large scale scandal erupted around him, is it impossible to imagine Babiš making a forced retreat from public life under the weight of anti-corruption and investigations.
His departure would, in theory, open up the field for ANO’s transformation into a party with better prospects to stay the course. But it would in all likelihood (as Babiš himself anticipates) 30 leave a vacuum of power and resources so destabilising that the movement would simply implode – perhaps leaving the Czech Republic with a landscape of small warring centrist and centre-right parties of the kind currently found in Slovakia.
A Czech Orbán in the making?
The West European media have often lumped Babiš together with conservative populists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński or Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan. The founder of ANO certainly admires the untrammelled executive power Orbán enjoys – telling the Hungarian ambassador as much in an unguarded moment while miced up for a TV documentary. 31
But ANO always been very far from the kind of support that could deliver a Polish or Hungarian-style single party majority. 32
More tellingly, however, the movement Babiš has created is hollow, brittle and ideologically amorphous creation puny by comparison with well-organised, socially embedded conservative-nationalist parties that have sustained and driven illiberal projects in Hungary, Poland and Turkey.
ANO’s more prospects of becoming a dominant ruling suggest that Mr Babiš’s best strategy is not to storm the political establishment head-on Trump- or Berlusconi-style, but to rely on his ability to informally fuse economic, political and media power behind the scenes. As with previous party system centred on the ODS and Social Democrats, the Czech Republic again likely to have façade of competitive party pluralism distorted by powerful informal interests – albeit with a new cast of parties and more powerful, oligarchical set of informal interests.
Read the original text in Visegrad Revue.
This article has been automatically generated from the Visegrad Revue webzine, a project funded by the International Visegrad Fund. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily have to represent the official position of the donor, the Visegrad Group, or the publisher (Democracy in Central Europe).