Babiš eyes 'democratic revolution' in politics
Billionaire entrepreneur sets out stall for his political movement, ANO 2011
Posted: March 20, 2013
Andrej Babiš, whom Forbes magazine listed as the country's second-richest man, hopes his ANO 2011 movement can help the government invest in local industry and infrastructure.
By his own account, Andrej Babiš doesn't act like a typical billionaire. He says he chooses to shun the usual trappings of wealth, such as fast cars, private jets and fancy yachts, in favor of a modest approach to life, insisting he feels more comfortable shopping for groceries at his local market than he does hacking his way around the golf course with other high rollers.
However, Babiš also acknowledges his bank statements don't lie. According to the latest list published by Forbes magazine, he ranks as the second-richest person in the Czech Republic, behind financier Petr Kellner, with an estimated fortune of $2 billion. At the same time, Agrofert Holding - the agricultural, food and chemical company Babiš founded in the early 1990s - posted profits of 7.8 billion Kč ($395 million/305 million euros) in 2012, increasing sales 15 percent on the year before.
Naturally, then, eyebrows were raised when the 58-year-old decided to create a political movement, ANO 2011, in November of that year. An acronym for "Action by Dissatisfied Citizens," the movement literally means "Yes" in Czech and comes in response, Babiš says, to 8,000 e-mails from a frustrated population asking him to rid the country's political arena of sleaze.
"We should unite to make life better in this country for everybody because we need satisfied employees," Babiš told The Prague Post. "There is a lot of money here, but nobody is managing the country properly. It's a pity: I live here, I employ a lot of people here, and I have my family here, but the future of the country is not very positive."
Others, though, have questioned Babiš's true motivations for his foray into politics, saying the movement represents a conflict of interest with his business ambitions and will only serve to boost the entrepreneur's own stock. Rejecting any suggestion of self-promotion, Babiš maintains ANO 2011 is not about him but rather about planting the seeds of a democratic revolution.
"My ego is fine," he said. "I have proved that I have built the biggest company here; I'm satisfied with my performance. The only way to change [things], unfortunately, is through parliamentary elections. I'm a very pragmatic guy. It's the only way, so this is what we're doing."
On the face of it, Babiš seems to have captured the public mood. With the government's approval rating in free fall, ANO 2011 is seeking to ride the wave of anger generated by unpopular austerity measures, as well as a raft of recent corruption scandals that have implicated several of the country's senior politicians, notably those involved in military purchases and privatization deals.
Babiš is loath to position the movement on a left-right political axis, underlining his view that it is more about recruiting "polite and capable people." However, according to Jan Keller, a sociologist at the University of Ostrava, becoming another centrist group won't be enough to attract voters in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary election.
"There's no place for a new political party on our political scene," he said. "The trend goes toward deep left-right polarization, but Babiš's movement negates this tendency. The winner of the [next] election must be able to propose a very concrete agenda, specifying how to reduce unemployment and preserve the existing social security system."
Although the movement won't roll out its election program until the end of April, Babiš - who was re-elected as ANO 2011's leader March 2 - says the focus will be on investing in local industry and infrastructure, improving the education system and reducing VAT. The businessman argues a small budget deficit shouldn't be cause for concern, and that much of the gap could be plugged simply by collecting unpaid VAT, whose value he puts at around 90 billion Kč.
Touching upon a strategy of share and reapply, Babiš says the Czech Republic should also look to its European neighbors for ideas on how to grow. He singles out Sweden's social system and Estonia's monetary policy as examples to learn from and bemoans a lack of experts in prominent positions here, saying most Czech politicians "don't even know what they're talking about."
"This country should be run by people who have actually proved something in their lives," he said. "We need a different type of politician, not somebody who can't find another job or who needs to go into politics to steal our money. Most of the people sitting in Parliament will never get there again, so they have to make some money. They have their mortgages to pay."
Babiš, who was born in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, is certainly not afraid to speak his mind. Previously, he publicly blamed former Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek and the former mayor of Prague Pavel Bém (also ODS) for many of the country's present corruption problems, accusing them of creating an environment in which unscrupulous lobbyists, including Roman Janoušek and Marek Dalík, have been able to thrive.
Despite being widely criticized for casting such aspersions, the entrepreneur says he will continue to expose what he considers to be wrongdoing, regardless of the risks. "I talk openly about information that everybody knows," Babiš said. "Everybody is talking about it secretly in bars and restaurants. I'm just clearly saying what's going on in this country. And then it's a big scandal because they say I don't have proof. It's difficult to prove, but everybody knows it's true."
A war of words
The latest target of Babiš's wrath is Vít Bárta, chairman of the Public Affairs (VV) party. The pair has been engaged in a bitter exchange ever since Bárta called Babiš a "thief" for his role in allegedly keeping food prices high. The ANO 2011 leader says he will take Bárta to court over those comments, which were made in an interview aired on Prima TV in February.
"According to Eurostat, we have the fifth-cheapest food in Europe, after Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Belarus," Babiš said in defense. "If you also consider that 50 percent of fresh food is sold at auction, if you use these prices, then I'm sure we are one of the cheapest in Europe. Bárta is the biggest liar I've ever met."
Given the right of reply by this newspaper, the VV chairman said, "It's absolutely unthinkable that Babiš, an 'agricultural liege' holding more than 200 companies, has no effect on price making. We will carry on with our endeavors to show this."
The men's feud came to a head when they were invited onto the weekly political show Questions of Václav Moravec March 10. During a fiery debate, Bárta slammed Babiš for operating a "chicken concentration camp," while the latter responded by highlighting the hypocrisy of a man who voted in favor of VAT hikes, including for food, when VV belonged to the ruling coalition.
"Bárta is a psychopath," Babiš continued in his interview with The Prague Post. "He should go to a psychiatric clinic immediately. He's a dangerous guy; he talks like Hitler. It's all lazy propaganda, lies and manipulation. He lied [as transport minister] when he told the Czech people, 'I'm stopping the building of highways, and I want them to be cheaper.' He was asking the construction companies for money!"
While this mudslinging may appear counter-productive, many analysts see it as part of a wider political battle. VV, which once boasted 24 MPs in the Chamber of Deputies, has collapsed spectacularly amid scandal and party infighting, with its support now less than 1 percent. Bárta himself was embroiled in a grotesque trial in which he was charged with bribing two of his MPs, but was later acquitted on appeal.
The party's lost votes are therefore up for grabs, and Vladimíra Dvořáková, a professor of political science at the University of Economics in Prague, believes ANO 2011 can "occupy the space" vacated by VV.
"I don't think [Babiš] is very popular - there are strong attacks by the press - but, on the other hand, it depends whether he will participate directly in politics or whether he will be the man behind the scenes," she said. "The latter situation could be more successful. I don't think his political activity has the goal to gain a profit. It's not a business project like Public Affairs."
Much will hinge on how ANO 2011 organizes itself. Dvořáková says the program is important but that there also needs to be "some basic regional structure." As it stands currently, the movement has established 91 district branches, as well as one in each of the country's 14 regions. In addition, Babiš is aiming to enlist the help of "experts from all sectors," with Karel Janeček's Anti-Corruption Foundation already a partner.
What is perhaps more crucial is the issue of leadership. Babiš has remained largely untainted by scandal. He was dragged into the 2004 Unipetrol affair by Polish lobbyist Jacek Spyra but, as he points out, was "never under investigation by the police." Many people still view him with suspicion, though, wondering why someone so rich, who avoids bidding in public tenders, is so keen to figure in the fight against corruption.
However, Babiš, who has ploughed nearly 60 million Kč of his and his company's money into ANO 2011, will tell you that graft is merely a symptom of poor management, apparently one of his major bugbears.
"I would definitely run the country better than the real politicians," he said. "If the Czech Republic were a company, it would be an entrepreneur's dream to buy such a company with so much debt. I've bought 500 companies in 20 years, so I have a lot of experience. Life is easy, but people make it complicated. I've just learnt that one plus one is two."
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
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