Despite these antics, the Czech Republic’s democratic identity seemed securely anchored in a multiparty political system dominated by pro-EU parties of the moderate left and center. So long as those parties retained their strength and credibility, the loud-mouthery of its sottish president could be winced at, but need not inspire much worry. The country’s past three prime ministers have all been conventional European politicians, who—under a Social Democratic political label—followed a consistent line of policy committed to the rule of law and favorable to economic growth.
That left and center was decimated in 2017. The Social Democratic party dropped from largest party in Parliament to sixth, the result of a plunge of 70 percent in its raw vote total. The traditional party of the moderate right, the Civic Democratic party, did gain seats over its 2013 result, but still barely outpolled the Czech Republic’s party of the authoritarian, anti-immigrant far right.
Babis’s ANO won more than the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats combined. He won more than any party at all in the elections of 2013 and 2010. How did he do it? The short answer is that he did not do it. The respectable democratic leaders of the European Union did it for him, by failing to respond to mass migration from Africa and the Middle East.
When I met Babis, the great surge of migration into Europe from Libya and Syria were accelerating, heading to the crisis of 2015. To that point, immigration had not been a Babis theme. He had no issues, only a slogan: “Bude lip,” it will be better. Babis limitlessly believed in himself, and equally limitlessly believed that all opposition to his wishes—including his investigation for subsidy fraud—was the work of a sinister conspiracy against him.
Then, in 2015, he found his issue: immigration. The escalating influx of migrants across the Mediterranean had come to a climax that summer in a spectacular miscalculation by German chancellor Angela Merkel.
To that point, people who arrived on European shores to claim asylum were stopped at the first country they reached: typically Italy or Greece. Under EU law, they had no right to move from their first “safe country” to another. But asylum-seekers were of course also seeking economic opportunities, which is why they did not always stop at the first country of refuge—and that meant transit from the depressed economies of southern Europe to the strong economies of the north, especially the United Kingdom, Sweden, and above all, Germany. They began to move north, illegally, often on foot. On August 25, 2015, in an effort to relieve pressure on its harder-pressed neighbors, the German government made a fateful decision: Syrian citizens who had arrived in Europe would henceforward be allowed to enter Germany to apply for asylum there. That decision, announced in a tweet from the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, almost instantly sparked one of the greatest mass movements of people since 1945. Young men from Sri Lanka to Senegal cashed everything they and their families had to make the move to Europe to present themselves as “Syrian refugees” seeking entry into the German job market. Almost 2 million people would arrive in Germany before the flow was finally halted in later 2016. (After deducting foreign nationals who exited Germany—mostly people from other EU countries returning home—the population impact netted out at some 1.2 million new arrivals.)