The Poisoned Quill

A Czech drama mixed with comedy and soap opera is playing out in real time

Martin Ehl
5 maja 2017

The Czech government – and Czech politics as a whole – is in crisis. At least it appears that way from the dramatic speeches, interviews and hectic visits of Czech politicians over the last few days in Prague.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, head of the Czech Social Democrats, has surprised everybody by offering to resign with his cabinet as a protest against his coalition partner, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance – and one of the richest Czechs (or Slovaks) – Andrej Babis. Sobotka has accused Babis of not being able to reliably explain the source of his original wealth (which was used to start his now business imperium, Agrofert) and of mistreating public funds which he directly benefited from through several of his companies.

It is tricky electioneering six months prior to the planned parliamentary elections. Until this week, it seemed Sobotka was pushing Babis to resign; instead the Prime Minster has offered the resignation of the whole cabinet to the great surprise of not only his coalition partners (Social Democrats govern with Babis’s ANO party and the Christian Democrats) but also his own party leadership.

The Prologue

Sobotka and his party have been predicted to dramatically lose in the upcoming elections. Sobotka, is considered a weak leader, has struggled leading his own fractured party and has publicly collided with the former leader of the Social Democrats – the now President Milos Zeman who wants to humiliate Sobotka as much as possible – which has left his position in the government tenuous to say the least. The source of Zeman and Sobotka’s falling out goes back fifteen years when Sobotka greatly hindered Zeman’s failed attempt at becoming President in 2003.

Sobotka, most probably, has seen the eventualities before him and does not want to be the scapegoat of his party after elections. Therefore, he is putting himself into a fight he will most likely lose, but which carries with it a clear message: Babis is misusing his own media and power, and he could become a dangerous autocrat if his party wins the election as polls now suggest.

The Supporting Cast

Babis can work with President Zeman, who has started to fight for his re-election (historically, the second popular elections of President are supposed to be in early weeks of next year, directly after the parliamentary ones). Supposedly, these two autocrats would be able to live together as President and Prime Minister and shift the Czech Republic towards the Polish-Hungarian direction, weakening democratic standards and institutions.

Other possible coalition partners and political parties will have quite important roles to play after elections if ANO becomes the leading party in the parliament. There are strong groups inside the Social Democrats which would gladly take the positions of Mercutio or Benevolio to Ano’s Romeo, but infighting is heavy.

The aforementioned conceit aside, is what we see now in Czech politics drama, comedy, thriller or soap opera?

Genre Shifts

It is definitely dramatic for the traditional parties which are not able to face successful populists like Babis.

Yet, it’s impossible not to see the comedy unfolding in the numerous speeches and negotiations being performed as a ruse for the public. This is when various actors put on the masks of serious politicians, all the while their farcical motivations – usually out-and-out lies meant to distract or pull attention away from anything undesirable – are always clear to the listening audience.

It’s also a thriller for Sobotka, who now has to find a way out of this very uneasy situation. Here Babis, when on the counter-attack, has made at least one good point: Sobotka, in his adult life, has never experienced anything but politics.

Soap opera features are also present when we see the that this is only part of a long and predictable saga, where coalition partners are destined to clash with each other from time to time, especially when an election date is already set. Only now, tensions are heightened, as the drama unveiling is more tantalising than what was expected from the original script.

And all four genres are mixing together like in cinema when you know there is already a solution on the table – in this case negotiated between all the main players minus Sobotka. There won’t be any early elections nor the forming of a technocratic cabinet, but the same political partners will continue to govern until October, only some names will change. Sobotka lately decided to stay as Prime Minister and dismissed Andrej Babis from the post of Finance Minister.

But nothing is sure and all is in hands of President who leaves for two visits – to North Bohemian region and then to China – and his office said until then no decision will be made.

There is still an option of government without both Sobotka and Babis. I would bet that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lubomir Zaoralek (a Social Democrat), is more than prepared to take over the role of saviour for the government and will be able to combine his present role with leading the cabinet, allowing for some additional cast changes.

The only question is if Andrej Babis would be able to leave his governmental role. Famously controlling as a manager, it would be hard for him to leave the financial ministry unattended. In politics, he is playing the role of an outsider, of a manager – and he says he wants to manage country like a company. Sound familiar to any of our American friends?

How the action will play out is anyone’s guess, but if anything, they certainly have our attention.

Martin Ehl is Chief International Editor of Czech economic daily Hospodarske noviny and Economy Editor of Visegrad Insight

On the photo: Bohuslav Sobotka, Czech Prime Minister / (CC) European Council 2014