The Swift Rise Of Billionaires In Global Politics

Credit: Petr David Josek/AP

Most are aware that billionaires love to donate large sums to politicians or parties as a form of lobbying or bribery. But what’s flying under the radar is the increasing number of billionaires running for public office themselves.

One of the more known examples of the billionaire politician is the former US president Donald Trump. During his presidency he had an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion. Many think he was the first of his kind, but in reality that is far from the case. Countries across the world have seen a rise in business tycoons running for public office, many of whom promise to fight the corruption of the establishment. Unlike Trump, who ran in the mainstream Republican Party, most billionaire politicians tend to start their own political parties.

Other examples of billionaires who were successful enough to become head of government are; Bidzina Ivanishvili Prime Minister of Georgia (2012–2013), Silvio Berlusconi Prime Minister of Italy (1994–1995, 2001–2006, 2008–2011), Sebastián Piñera President of Chile (2010–2014, 2018–2022), and Andrej Babiš Prime Minister of the Czech Republic (2017–2021). Most of these men also held prior political office as well. An example of a billionaire who hasn’t been a head of government but did get into elected office is Clive Palmer from Australia, who was an MP for a single term (2013–2016).

In this piece, we are going to focus on Andrej Babiš of the Czech Republic. Mr Babiš is a billionaire former businessman and communist secret agent who started Agrofert, a company with holdings in agriculture, energy and media. Before that he sold fertiliser and studied international trade, living in various countries throughout his life. He has amassed a net worth of $4 billion at the time of writing, with his company Agrofert having a consolidated turnover of 132 billion Kč in 2012.

In May 2012 Mr Babiš founded his own populist, centre/centre-right political party ANO 2011. He also leads the party and has since its creation. In the first Czech parliament election the party contested, ANO won 47 of the 200 seats, coming second with 18.65% of the popular vote. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) was the largest party with 50 seats, beating ANO by just 3. The success of ANO could be attributed to Mr Babiś leading his party on an anti-establishment message to fight the corrupt Czech political establishment.

Credit: REUTERS

As with most European governments, the voting system meant no party won a majority and coalition talks had to begin. The 2013 election results ended in ANO going into a three party coalition with the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) and the Christian & Democratic Union — Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL). Mr Babiš who had been elected into the Chamber of Deputies (The Czech Parliamentary lower house) in 2013 was given the roles of the Czech Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance in return for joining the coalition. Mr Babiš then held these roles from January 2014 to May 2017.

As a result of joining the Czech government, Mr Babiš had to relinquish any control he had over his company Agrofert and declare all his assets, something that the Pandora Papers later revealed he didn’t do. In his role as Minister of Finance, Mr Babiš was at the negotiation table when discussing EU subsidies to struggling and new/small Czech businesses. During this time a farm business near Prague received an unprecedented €2m subsidy. It was revealed that not only was this farm in fact a large thriving business, but it was also owned by Mr Babiš’ own company, Agrofert. This became known as the ‘Storks Nest Scandal’ and resulted in the EU considering a halt to all subsidies sent to the Czech Republic. In May 2017 the Czech government had a coalition crisis, as there were questions about Mr Babiš and the tax he paid in 2012. Mr Babiš was fired from his positions in government but ANO still remained in the coalition with the new Finance Minister also a member of ANO.

Later in October 2017 the next Czech election for the Chamber of Deputies was held. Despite being actively investigated by the Czech police over his finances and being stripped of his parliamentary immunity to prosecution, Mr Babiš led ANO to win 29.64% of the popular vote and 78 of the 200 seats, making ANO the largest party in the Chamber of Deputies. ANO also won the most Czech seats in the European Parliament in 2019. On the 6th of December 2017, Mr Babiš was appointed Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. However, because most parties refused to work with Babiš due to his controversial tax scandals, he tried to lead an ANO only minority government with only 39% of the total seats.

In January 2018 the first Babiš cabinet lost a vote of confidence. This meant either an early election had to be held or a new government had to be formed. During this time the first Babiš government became a caretaker government that could only act on emergency issues and not pass any new laws. Despite this the ANO government would act beyond this caretaker position, sparking controversy. After nearly five months, ANO and its former coalition partner the CSSD agreed to go into coalition, but since they only had 16 seats they still had no majority and had to get outside support from the Czech Communist Party. On the 6th of June 2018 Mr Babiš was reappointed Prime Minister and his second cabinet was appointed on the 27th of June 2018 and passed a confidence vote in July 2018.

After all this chaos, Mr Babiš was still not quite finished. He was then accused of kidnapping his own son, as alleged by his very own, Andrej Babiš Jr. Mr Babiš has denied this, claiming his son is mentally ill, but both sides are yet to be verified. In another vote of confidence in November 2018 in which both coalition parties voted for Babiš, the outside support party abstained and all opposition parties voted against the government. Despite more voting against Babiš, in the Czech Parliament you need more than half the parliament to vote against you to lose a confidence vote, so Mr Babiš survived the vote.

[Martin Divisek/EPA/EFE]

Within two year of becoming Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš had seen a total of four confidence votes against him. An unstable government indeed.

Babiš remained Prime Minister through many more controversies and protests of over 200,000 people calling for his resignation. Eventually the time came for the next Czech Parliament to hold an election due October 2021. Despite some polls earlier in the year suggesting ANO was losing support, ANO was still expected to win the election and Babiš would be re-elected Prime Minister. However, days before the election, the Pandora Papers were released and revealed that Mr Babiš bought €100 million worth of properties through offshore companies to avoid tax. Mr Babiš had not declared this when he became Prime Minister. This was not strictly illegal but for a Prime Minister who founded his party to fight corruption it’s a stark hypocrisy. Over 2021, Babiš then lost support from the communists and had four health ministers resign.

In the election, ANO won 27.13% of the vote, coming second to an electoral alliance of centre right parties called SPOLU who won 27.8% of the vote. However, ANO still won the most seats with 72 total seats, while SPOLU won 71. With the left wing Electoral Alliance Pirates and Mayors winning 37 seats, both left-wing and right-wing alliances, that were founded with the intention to oust Babiš, instantly stated they would form a government together after the election. With the alliances together they made a majority with 108 of the 200 seats. Right after, the election talks for exact roles started and Babiš was out no matter what. He lost the election and on the 17th of December 2021 he left office.

With so much chaos, it becomes hard to fathom just how he has managed to maintain his popularity for all these years. Perhaps though, the answer lies in his eerie media monopoly.

Two Weeks prior to the 2013 election of the Chamber Of Deputies, Babiš acquired the massive media group ‘Mafra’ which holds multiple influential newspapers, news servers, news websites and printing works. Then, after his party entered into coalition, Babiš acquired the country’s most popular radio station ‘Radio Impuls’. He even has his own TV Show, called ‘Babiš’s Cafe’, in which he answers questions from a moderator and voters.

As his political efforts and total media take over seem to run perfectly in sync, it becomes hard to beat the feeling that this is in fact a coordinated effort on his part. Especially when you take into account he only began buying up media after he started his ANO 2011 political movement.

His grip on the media will now be put to the test however, with charges filed this year against him for the aforementioned EU subsidies ‘Stork’s Nest’ scandal. He is accused of fraudulently using €2 million in EU money.

With the January 2023 presidential elections fast approaching, and the alliance of centre-right parties having won the last election, maybe his political dominance is finally coming to an end.

Written by
Ross Doig
Sandy Woodhouse

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