Just as the electoral campaign was beginning in the the Czech Republic, the public got a taste of a Greek tragedy when the incumbent Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, was publicly challenged by his estranged son. The bizzare story, which involves even an alleged kidnapping of Babiš Jr. on his father’s orders, has some very real implications as it may be connected to a fraud involving European funds and a company owned by the Prime Minister.
“Hello father…Why did you hurt me?”
At the beginning of September, Prime Minister Andrej Babiš's ruling ANO movement launched its campaign in the North Bohemian town of Ústí nad Labem. The weather was nice and the event was held in the open air. Apart from the candidates, only accredited journalists had access to the place. The safety of the Prime Minister and the ministers attending the event was guarded by many police officers. The presentation of the election slogans and the main speeches went without complications, but the subsequent conversation between the Prime Minister and the journalists was interrupted by an unexpected incident.
"Hello father. How does it feel to see me face to face now?" exclaimed a man towards Babiš, who had previously broken up a group of journalists. "Why did you hurt me? I will defend myself, I will fight. And I'm doing it not only for myself, but for other people," he continued. "I wish you good luck in your campaign and with fooling the Czech nation and your ANO sect," Andrej Babiš Jr. added.
Babiš Sr. watched his son's speech in silence, as did the ministers from his ANO movement gathered around. "I just want to say that I have always taken proper care of my son", the Prime Minister said after his son’s departure. "I am sorry. We know who is abusing him, but I don't want to talk about it. I have a clear conscience. I don't wish any parent to experience this", he added.
Needless to say, the incident has completely overshadowed the actual launch of the campaign of the political movement.
The appearance of Andrej Babiš Jr. on the scene didn’t hurt his father in the polls, which give him the best chance of winning the October 8-9 elections. However, it may have other unpleasant consequences for the Prime Minister, but we must go back in time to explain why that may happen.
Passing the Stork Nest from father to son and back to father
The Prime Minister, one of the richest people in the Czech Republic, is accused in the Stork Nest (Čapí Hnízdo) case – Stork Nest is the name of the luxury resort that the Prime Minister had built. The Stork Nest was originally owned by a company from Babiš's Agrofert holding. It changed hands in 2008 (anonymous shareholders became owners) and became formally independent. As a small company, it received a CZK 50 million (app. 2 millions Euro) European subsidy, which it would not have been entitled to as part of the giant holding.
When the terms of the subsidy expired, the Stork Nest returned to Babiš's holding in 2014. According to the police, Babiš committed subsidy fraud when he made Stork Nest purposefully independent in order to receive a subsidy intended for small and medium-sized companies. In 2017, police charged Babiš and 11 other people. Among them were former executives of the company and members of Babiš's family – including his son Andrej (later, the prosecutors acquitted him and other members of the family). It was he and other relatives who owned the anonymous shares at the time the police say the fraud occurred.
Babiš himself admitted this to MPs in 2016. "The Stork Nest farm was owned at the relevant time by my two adult children and my partner's brother, who held a share corresponding to the share of my two minor children and my partner," he said.
An alleged kidnapping, a schizoprenia diagnosis and the return of the Angry Son
Babiš Jr. refused to comment on the case for years, and the police did not even manage to question him. Among other things, his serious mental illness should have prevented it.
Than in January 2018, police recieved an e-mail from him: "I was kidnapped to Crimea. Now I am in Ukraine with my girlfriend. I am awaiting involuntary psychiatric intervention. My father needed me to disappear for the duration of the Stork's Nest case."
Babiš Jr. repeated this in the autumn of the same year, when reporters from Seznam Zprávy found him in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was staying with his mother. He claimed that he had been dragged to Crimea against his will at his father's request, so that he could not testify in the Stork's Nest case. He accused a psychiatrist who had diagnosed him with schizophrenia (which was a co-worker of his father as well), and her husband, who worked for Babiš's holding company as a driver. It was he who accompanied Babiš Jr. to Russia and Ukraine.
The police, however, did not look into the alleged kidnapping, closed it without questioning Babiš Jr., and no one was charged – according to the investigation, no crime was committed. Andrej Babiš Jr. himself has not commented publicly – except in a few cases when journalists sought him out in Switzerland.
This July, however, he suddenly appeared in the Czech Republic. He announced that he was ready to testify in the Stork Nest case and about his alleged abduction to Crimea. He blames both cases on his father. He has also begun to openly criticise him on his social media and in interviews, referring to him as a "mafioso".
The prosecutor was supposed to decide by the end of August whether the Prime Minister and one of the managers would have to go to trial.
However, the return of Babiš Jr, who is a key witness in the case and has not yet been questioned, has changed the situation. The prosecutor ordered the police to question him. First, on 9 September, he testified for several hours about his alleged abduction to Crimea, and on 13 September about the Stork Nest case. He spent five hours with the police.
"I have a good feeling about it. I am glad that today (last Monday) I was finally able to testify in the case of the Stork Nest, in which my father made a white horse out of me. I want to stress that I never wanted to be part of the subsidy scam," Babiš Jr. told reporters afterwards.
In short, the Prime Minister's son – whose profession is that of a cargo plane pilot – claims that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia on purpose so that he could not testify in the case. And for the same reasons he was allegedly taken to Crimea. He now claims to have assessments that show he is completely mentally healthy. He blames his father for his fate so far and wants him to go to trial.
He also claims that his aim is not to influence the elections. But if that were to happen, he would not mind. "I don't mind if it has a secondary effect. But it's not my goal. You have to remember that I didn't cause myself to be taken to Crimea, I didn't do the Stork Nest case, my father did. I have a clear goal, and that is to win my lawsuit against the people who committed crimes against me," he explains.
The winner will not take it all
What is almost certain, however, is that the case will not be closed before the elections.
Experts mostly don't think the angry son factor will hurt the Prime Minister much with voters. "I think it will work as adding ammunition against Andrej Babiš. From the point of view of his sympathisers, it will help him. Everyone will strengthen their perspective and will adapt their interpretation to their own world view," political scientist Eva Lebedová said.
Pre-election polls prove her right. Babiš's populist ANO movement holds a clear lead. While in the spring it briefly fell to the 20 percent mark due to the badly managed epidemy of Covid, it is now hovering around 25 percent again, and in some polls even higher.
That would be enough to win now, but it may not be enough to govern. Right behind in the polls are two opposition coalitions that have publicly pledged not to go into government with the ANO movement. The rather conservative Spolu (Together) coalition is now in second place with a predicted result of just over 20 percent. The polls predict a slightly weaker result for the second, more liberal coalition of the Pirates and the Mayors and Independents.
The anti-immigration SPD movement is still certain to be elected. The Social Democrats and the Communists, with whom ANO ruled in this election period, are hovering around the five percent threshold required to enter the Lower Chamber. If they fail to do so, it will probably be very difficult for ANO to find a majority.
The question is what issue will dominate the end of the campaign. Prime Minister Babiš is emphasising migration, sovereignty vis-à-vis the European Union, or opposition to electromobility or the sharing economy, thus defining himself against the Pirates. Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic remains rather in the background, even though the Czech Republic had a very high number of victims per capita and the government faced strong criticism for not handling the situation. However, as at this time last year, the number of infected is increasing. But it is possible that in the more than two weeks that remain before the elections, a completely new issue will emerge that will affect the situation. It would not be the first time in Czech elections.