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Strict party organisation boosts populist success in Czech Republic

Anti-establishment parties with populist appeal have become part and parcel of the political landscape in many European countries. Some of these parties are more successful than others. PhD candidate Tomáš Cirhan studied the rapid rise of ANO, the party of Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš. He concludes that the party’s success is due in part to the close link between the party and the multi-million-euro company Agrofert, founded by Babiš. PhD defence 12 May.

Like many other anti-establishment parties in Europe – such as Syriza in Greece and UKIP in the UK, for example – ANO is a relatively young political party. It developed in 2012 from an anti-corruption movement directed against the then Czech government that was embroiled in a number of scandals. In the elections in 2013, the party came from nowhere and won almost 19 per cent of the votes. Four years later, that figure rose to almost 30 per cent, and the party’s leader Andrej Babiš became prime minister of the Czech Republic. 

Membership screening

According to political scientist Cirhan, the party’s structure is a contributing factor in its enormous success. The party is closely interwoven with the business sector. ‘I discovered that 67 per cent of the party elite come from the managerial class, and 17 per cent of that elite even worked for one of the Babiš’s companies,’ Cirhan explained. The party was established with the help of a loan from Babiš himself, which means that he has a firm hand on the reins. There are also restrictions on party membership, which has contributed to its stability, Cirhan concludes. ‘A six-month screening, during which checks are made on personal data and the potential member’s debt history, is standard practice.’  

Corruption scandal

An organisation structure where there is strong control from the top, with businessman Babiš  directing what goes on, has ensured that ANO is relatively good at dealing with scandals. ‘There was a major corruption scandal in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic, with many ANO members involved. Almost all of them were immediately expelled from the party,’ Cirhan says. ‘The exceptions were those people who are close allies of Babiš himself.’

PhD candidate at Leiden University Tomáš Cirhan has an interview with the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš of the populist ANO party in the parliament in Prague
PhD candidate Tomáš Cirhan (right) with the Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš

In discussion with the prime minister himself

For his research Cirhan spoke with a number of prominent party members. He interviewed the ANO Minister of Defence and many local politicians. ‘I had expected them to be more discreet, but in many of the discussions it was soon made clear that whatever Babiš wants, he gets.’  The most remarkable of Cirhan’s interviews was with the prime minister himself. ‘It was in a café in the Czech parliament. I was there as a researcher, not as a journalist, but even so his answers were always very  hostile and he avoided answering most of my questions.’  Nonetheless, the interview was important for Cirhan’s research. ‘ He is a businessman who is always at work: that’s the impression I had from our discussion. Politics doesn’t happen on paper; it’s all about people doing deals with one another, and that’s something Babiš is very adept at.’

'Some people may think that a party like ANO has a very undemocratic modus operandi, but that’s not my main conclusion'

Besides an analysis of the Czech ANO party, in his research Cirhan also makes a comparison with the Austrian Team Stronach party, the Slovakian OĽaNO party and the Italian populist Forza Italia. He wants his research to provide insights into how party organisational structure – strictly controlled local party branches, restrictions on membership and a dependent party elite – contributes to the success of some of Europe’s populist anti-establishment parties. ‘There may be people who think that the modus operandi of a party like ANO is very undemocratic, but that’s not my main conclusion. Instead, what my research does show is how ANO’s organisation structure has been a factor in its electoral success.


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