Sunday, 22 July 2018

HN: Ousting of Babiš unlikely to help PM in elections

19 May 2017

Prague, May 18 (CTK) - Czech PM and Social Democrat (CSSD) head Bohuslav Sobotka has emerged better than expected from the government crisis, which seems to be ending now, but still its outcome is not very favourable for him ahead of the October general election, Petr Honzejk writes in Hospodarske noviny (HN) on Thursday.

The hot phase of the government crisis will probably end now with President Milos Zeman nodding to the agreement between Sobotka and ANO movement leader Andrej Babis on Babis's departure from the cabinet and his replacement with ANO lawmaker Ivan Pilny, Honzejk writes.

It is difficult to say who has emerged victorious from the crisis, apart from mentioning contract killer Jiri Kajinek, Honzejk writes.

He is alluding to Zeman's recent decision to grant pardon to this life convict, which many consider his attempt to divert the public's attention from his controversial approach to the crisis that broke out over Babis's suspected tax evasion and misuse of media several weeks ago.

For Sobotka, the outcome is better than expected. Two weeks ago, he seemed to face only two alternatives, both horrible: either he will oust Babis from the government and will "make a kind of political St Sebastian of him," or he will not sack Babis and will be labelled a weakling," Honzejk writes.

Now that several rounds of the battle are over and Babis is prepared to leave as finance minister, he does not seem to enjoy the planned position of a martyr, Honzejk writes.

Sobotka, for his part, is backed by his CSSD, which has united during the government crisis, and also by crowds of demonstrators in the streets. This is more than what he could imagine, Honzejk writes.

From the point of view of the forthcoming elections, however, Sobotka's position is not that glorious, he continues.

ANO keeps controlling the Finance Ministry. Pilny, who is to replace Babis in the ministerial post, is formally not connected with Agrofert, a giant chemical, food and media holding which the billionaire Babis owned until recently, and he was even previously considered a rebel in ANO. However, he has become loyal now and has accepted the post which he recently called "beyond his professional qualification," Honzejk writes.

Briefly, the Finance Ministry will remain under the control of Babis. In this situation, the financial administration's checks will hardly uncover a vast tax evasion on his part. Babis will keep denying any wrongdoing and assert that all suspicions are lies and unrightful attempts to discredit him, Honzejk writes.

Babis's scandals will be probably half-forgotten during the summer, unless some new controversy emerges, such as a crushing result of the European anti-fraud agency's (OLAF) investigation into a suspicious drawing of EU subsidies by his Stork Nest firm, Honzejk writes.

The autumn election campaign, during which Babis will distribute tonnes of doughnuts among voters, will comfortably compensate for the losses his ANO suffered during the government crisis, Honzejk writes.

The question is whether the crisis really harmed Babis. The pieces of evidence showing that he is ready to use the media he owns to liquidate his political rivals may discourage a part of liberal-minded voters from supporting ANO. However, Babis may make up for the loss by attracting voters from the opposite, pro-Zeman part of the electorate, Honzejk writes.

If voters' preferences change in reaction to the government crisis, it is not clear how exactly. A relatively strong attendance at the recent anti-Babis and anti-Zeman demonstrations does not automatically mean that voters will increasingly support the CSSD, Honzejk writes.

To express their position, many liberals say "Sobotka enjoys my support within the government crisis, but I cannot vote for the CSSD," Honzejk writes.

As a result, the crisis might benefit smaller parties such as the election coalition of the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Mayors and Independents (STAN), the Civic Democrats (ODS) or TOP 09, while the CSSD may be happy at its voter support remaining unchanged, Honzejk writes.

By all means has the crisis made the Czech political scene more transparent. It has resulted in further mutual approximation of Babis and Zeman. True, their alliance is purely expedient. Babis wants Zeman to help him become prime minister in autumn, while Zeman wants Babis to support his re-election as president in early 2018, Honzejk writes.

The alliance of Zeman and Babis, who form a monarch-oligarch tandem, is working flat out and it will be difficult to defeat. Nevertheless, no one can deny its existence any more, and no one can deny Zeman and Babis's "loose approach" to the rules of liberal democracy, Honzejk writes.

The crisis has thus confirmed that the upcoming general and presidential elections will largely decide on the character of the regime to prevail in the Czech Republic, Honzejk writes.

The hot phase of the government crisis is ending and a cold war is starting, mingling with the hot part of the election campaign, he adds.

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