by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 10
January 2023
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07:00

Putting populists on trial is a dangerous game

The acquittal of Andrej Babiš on fraud charges has only boosted his popularity
by William Nattrass
Former Czech PM Andrej Babiš. Credit: Getty.

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. 


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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.

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Jim Jam
Jim Jam
22 days ago

There’s no more accurate description of populism than: ‘democracy when the speaker doesn’t like / want the result’

Just saying.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago

Thanks for this. It’s all new to me. For some reason, I’m still shocked at the lengths the entrenched establishment will go to crush their opponents. Unless the author isn’t telling us the whole story, the case against Babiš is even flimsier than the garbage thrown at Trump.

In other related news, classified documents have been found in Biden’s office. Can’t wait to find out how this is nothing like the classified documents found at Trump’s home. The mental gymnastics should be entertaining.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I would have expected classified documents to be found in Biden’s office. Just like I would have expected to find them in Trump’s when he was still POTUS. Or am I misunderstanding you?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago

Sorry, at his old office before becoming president; one he no longer uses.

Richard Pearse
Richard Pearse
22 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

In effect, you are correct (not Biden’s presidential office). I think they were discovered in the current offices of Biden’s current Think Tank (“Penn Biden bla bla bla”).

Not sure if he ever actually shows up. In any event, his lawyers discovered the docs in November and contacted the National archives to turn them over.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
22 days ago

The viciousness showed towards populists is astounding. We live in a ‘liberal’ society and are trained, at a young age, to sympathise and help out the maligned and persecuted, so they will rise against the current hardship. In the eyes of a contemporary Westerner, however, the question is: Who is being maligned? Is it minorities? Or is it the populist politicans and their supporters?
I think the answer would surprise many liberals in charge.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
22 days ago

And then fraud has bern uncovered among Italian and Belgian socialists, one of whom ran an NGO spearheading a witch hunt against Orban in Hungary.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
22 days ago

It’s just like Brexit, where the establishment tried to use the law to stop democracy; and like Trump (who I don’t support) where the Democrats pursued him for years about a conspiracy with Russia for which there was no evidence.

Across the west, the left seems to be losing faith in democracy, because people aren’t voting for its policies, so they then smear the politicians representing these voters as ‘populists’. No, this is democracy in action.

Last edited 22 days ago by Ian Stewart
Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
22 days ago

Governance is always undertaken by elites: that is the nature of the thing. It is not a problem until and unless the interests and values of those elites become so estranged from those of the populace that the elites find themselves under attack – and their hold on power threatened – by a set of alternative elites thrown up by the democratic process.
The correct response is accommodation, compromise and perhaps even reconsideration of one’s basic principles. To conjure instead the phantom of ‘alt-right’ (or even ‘quasi-fascist’) populism, and to seek to emasculate the new counter-elites by taking them to court on trumped-up charges is not going to work. It is more likely to make large swathes of society begin to suspect that there may be something to be said even for the bogeymen of ‘alt-right’ and ‘fascism’, antagonism to which the current elites flatter themselves secures their own legitimacy and hold on power. That would be a shame, but stranger things have happened.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
21 days ago

Is it dangerous? For who? Sounds like the people persecuting Babiš won’t face any repercussions, whilst having successfully slandered him for years and presumably drained a lot of his time and resources. It could have been very dangerous for Babiš though as even if he was innocent, a miscarriage of justice could have always occurred. No wonder the same tactic is being used around the world!