January 10, 2023 - 7:00am

Populist politicians throughout Europe are habitually accused of undermining the rule of law, so it’s no surprise that opponents exert huge pressure for them to face the judgement of the law, especially when they lose power. 

But the risks of such strategies were exposed in the Czech Republic on Monday. This week saw the acquittal of populist former prime minister and current presidential candidate Andrej Babiš in his trial for allegedly assisting in EU subsidy fraud before entering politics. Babiš stood accused of complicity in a claimed scheme to make a company in his Agrofert conglomerate eligible for EU funding by changing its ownership status. 

With the verdict coming just days before the first round of the Czech presidential elections in which Babiš is one of the favourites (the final result will come after a second-round run-off at the end of January), the media followed the trial with frenzied interest. The Czech metropolitan classes and political establishment reserve a special kind of loathing for the billionaire Babiš and his brusque man-of-the-people persona, and after obsessing over the EU subsidy fraud claims for years, they seemed to have convinced themselves that it would be impossible for him to be found not guilty. 

Campaigning groups even pushed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour by parading a mock jail cell, complete with a model of Babiš in prison uniform, outside the courthouse at the start of the trial. After the “not guilty” verdict was handed down, disbelief was palpable among followers of the media which had covered the trial with undisguised hostility. 

Such apparent presumptions of guilt now look highly damaging for the anti-populist cause, especially as Babiš profiled the prosecution as a media-driven, politically motivated sham. And in a legal system operating on the presumption of innocence, the evidence against him looked flimsy. The prosecution’s case rested on two things. The first was testimony from Babiš’s estranged son, who is being treated for schizophrenia and who previously claimed to have been abducted and taken to Crimea to stop him talking to investigators. The second was from a handwriting expert who asserted that Babiš “could” have forged his son’s signature on a key document. 

The judge who delivered the verdict repudiated claims that the trial was politicised, but Babiš’s supporters will now feel confirmed in their belief that it was a witch-hunt all along, potentially giving his presidential campaign a major boost. 

Yet the embarrassment for Czech anti-populists is unlikely to deter similar attempts elsewhere in Europe. In Slovakia, a move to prosecute former prime minister Robert Fico for allegedly running an organised crime group while in office was scrapped at the end of November. Meanwhile, with Polish general elections looming in October, it’s already being suggested that victory for a technocratic opposition spearheaded by Donald Tusk would lead to investigation and prosecution of current Law and Justice government politicians for their actions while in power.

The nature of opposition to European populists means other leaders would likely face similar treatment. In Hungary, for example, an opposition which builds its identity and purpose on the alleged criminality of Viktor Orbán’s regime may be expected to encourage a legal case against him and his allies, if they can ever beat him at the ballot box. Yet events in Prague have shown the perils of turning assumptions of guilt into articles of political faith.

William Nattrass is a British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz