One Man’s Faith In the Czech Donald Trump
By Jan Indra
HRADEC KRÁLOVÉ, CZECH REPUBLIC – Miroslav Myska, 67, is hard to miss. Standing over six feet tall with a broad frame in a crimson sweatshirt, he is dominating a gathering of about thirty people, taking charge of the conversation.
His dialogue partner is Andrej Babis, 63 – the founder and the leader of the political movement ANO, currently the most popular political entity in the Czech Republic. Described as „the Czech Republic’s version of Donald Trump“ by Forbes, the agricultural businessman with a net worth of about 4 billion USD has been touring the country’s smaller towns in order to rally the public to his side before the upcoming parliamentary election.
As a retired grocery store owner, Myska is introducing his vision of the pension system to Babis. „I’m not jealous of somebody having high pension rate, but I think that raising the pensions should mean giving the same amount of money to everybody.“ As Babis, a former Minister of Finance, frowns and routinely nods at Myska’s remarks, others swarm around the politician, either trying to get a picture with him or to shake his hand and get an autograph for Babis‘ new book „What I dream of when I happen to sleep“, outlining his vision for the Central European country by the year 2035.
Self-published and handed out for free in bookstores and ANO’s campaign events, the book has been central to the movement‘s effort to gain widespread support in hopes of staging a populist takeover in the Czech parliament.
And with five weeks left before the parliamentary election, the stakes in the former Eastern bloc country are high: According to the most recent data provided by the sociological research institute STEM, ANO has been polling at around 30 percent, with more than 15 percent lead over the second-place KSČM (The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and ČSSD (The Czech Social Democratic Party) coming in third.
With enough traction, ANO could reach for parliamentary majority. If not, virtually no scenario allows for the movement not being the main actor in forming the new government.
Myska is ecstatic about the latest poll results. „I’m really curious how it’s going to turn out. It’s looking good.“ Registered as a sympathizer of ANO, Myska has been voting for the centrist movement ever since it entered the political scene during the last parliamentary election in 2013, when ANO surprisingly finished second with 18,7 percent, less than 2 percent behind then-victorious Social Democrats.
Most parties are now stressing the importance of the October election. Phrases like „determining the course of our democracy“ have been thrown around the public sphere, and even ANO decided to make its campaign motto „Now or Never“.
„Everybody knows that this election is going to decide everything. It is the first and the last attempt at destroying the complex corruption hydra that has plagued this country for 25 years. That’s why the traditional politicians and their godfathers lead a massive, organized and dirty campaign in order to remove me from politics,“ Babis said at a recent press conference introducing ANO’s campaign program.
By the „massive campaign“, Babis is referring mainly to several scandals involving him. From mysteriously leaked tapes recording Babis, a media mogul, discussing publishing strategy with a journalist employed by one of his newspapers, to being investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) and the Czech police for allegedly committing an EU subsidy fraud, Babis is entering the election campaign as the most controversial Czech political figure in recent memory.
Regardless, Myska stays adamant that the accusations against his preferred political leader have been fabricated.
"I believe him. I absolutely believe him. With respect to everything. There is no chance I’m not giving him my vote,“ Myska praises Babis and directs the blame elsewhere. „The worst thing is the media, which distort everything. I believe that he is right and that they (the police and the opposition) set him up. He didn’t do anything wrong.“
For Myska and many others, the frustration with the traditional parties that has built up over the years finally tipped the scales and is enough to offset any potential sources of concern for Babis as a future Prime Minister.
“The politicians that have been in power until now...bad. Bad, bad, bad. I don’t want to be rude and name people, but I could.“ Myska continues to list the other major parties, saying each one has had its own corruption scandals. “Before Babis, I voted for ODS (Civic Democratic Party). But they let me down. All the politicians who are against Babis are veterans who have been there for 25 years, who haven’t done anything for the people and who are only in politics because of their own self-interest. But Babis is different. He doesn’t need the money. And that’s the difference.”
Myska is convinced that Babis knows “how to do business“. Not unlike Trump promising to “make America great again“, ANO’s main slogan vaguely declares that “things will get better“.
In the region of Hradec Králové, the frustration with the traditional political players was particularly nourished by the outcome of last year‘s regional election. Although ANO finished first with 25 percent of the votes, five other parties agreed to form a ruling coalition and exclude ANO from the regional government.
"I voted for ANO in the regional election but what good was it? All the other parties united against him [Babis]. That’s not right,“ Myska voices his frustration. "The winner should get a chance to build a [regional] government.“
Babis consistently insists on the conflict between “us“ and “them“, distinguishing ANO from all the other political opponents and often describing himself as “not a politician”. In his paper on the future of populism in Europe, University of Sussex Politics professor Paul Taggart describes this “fundamental ambivalence towards politics in general” as the primary defining feature of populism.
Populism then appeals the most to the discontented fraction of voters who feel as if they ran out of options. For Myska, the only viable choice is now a man taking up arms against the entire political spectrum.
“I stand behind Babis come hell or high water,“ Myska concludes. His faith anchored, he is likely to be one of many to propel “the Czech Donald Trump“ to a concentration of power the country has not seen in almost thirty years.