“This finance minister has debts running into the tens of billions of crowns yet he is now the key figure in the environment in which banks and financial conglomerates do their business. So, if he wanted to conduct himself transparently, he would have to disclose all his credit agreements,” Kalousek adds.
Some political commentators are convinced that the post November 1989 arrangement is coming to a close and is being replaced by a second republic. Others think that nothing particularly special is taking place since the position of President Miloš Zeman weakened with a duly elected government. What is your opinion?
It can only be a good thing that we have a legitimate government with enough MPs to win a confidence vote in the House of Representatives. However, I am far from venturing to say that a shift is taking place, even though risks are certainly present. I see two essential ones. I call them the monarchical model and the oligarchical model. These two risks can multiply once the monarch and the oligarch find common ground and enter into an agreement aimed at reaching a shared objective. They would certainly not aim for a rigorous balance of checks and balances for a parliamentary democracy. It serves to highlight the big task of the opposition and of what is left of the independent media to illuminate these risks and to keep reminding of their existence.
Zeman and the leader of ANO, Finance Minister Andrej Babiš could certainly find some common ground. Not least because Babiš can serve the president in his quest to continue weakening the Social Democrats (ČSSD).
It would surprise me if they didn’t. They will probably link up eventually.
You once said you believed your biggest mistakes were voting in favour of the direct election of the president and of self-governing administrative regions. Do you see the roots of the risks here?
The regions have certainly failed to contribute to the efficient governance of this country. And it is not the regional representatives who are at fault. They generally operate within the boundaries of the law setting out the regional and self-governing units, a law I would not support again. However, a side-effect is the tendency of many previously efficient parties to transform into confederations of regional satraps. Such a state of affairs will always be damaging to a democracy based on the free competition of political parties.
Was that one of the reasons for the swelling of the anti-corruption wave, which is becoming an all-redeeming ideology instead of combating crime?
Over the last one hundred years there have been numerous states that have experienced a shift from democracy to an autocratic or corporative model. It happened whenever a wave of criticism towards the standard political parties arose within the relevant society and when the prevailing perception was that all politicians were corrupt. On the other hand, I am not inclined to say that corruption is no big deal in the Czech Republic. It was a problem, by the way, even for Masaryk's first republic. However, there is the remaining question of to what extent has the current state of affairs been helped into existence by various proponents of a daft, prevailing mood and why have they acted in this way. It surprises me that some anti-corruption activists struggle to define corruption. Its essence lies in the abuse of the power of public office to obtain a private profit. It seems that people from the Anti-corruption Endowment [Nadační fond proti korupci Karla Janečka] and from Transparency International, who until lately would have seen corruption on just about every corner, must have lost the plot. I cannot understand why they remain silent over the fact that the owner of Agrofert and the finance minister are one and the same person, creating a conflict of interest. This conflict is so immense that it instantly creates a permanent environment for corruption.
Supporters of Babiš claim his actions will be closely monitored.
That is nonsense. There are things that will never be closely monitored, and cannot be for the simple reason that the current finance minister is also the owner of a corporate empire with tens of billions of crowns in loans. In other words, the finance minister owes tens of billions while also being the key figure in the environment in which banks and financial conglomerates do their business. So if he wanted to act transparently he would have to disclose all his credit agreements. But you can hardly ask him to do that as all such information is subject to banking secrecy. But then again, how can the public know that these agreements are not being favourably adjusted? This is a fundamental and most perilous conflict of interest, since no one will ever be able to look into it. Of course, there are plenty of other conflicts concentrating around Mr Babiš that are visible. I often utter a statement which is unfortunately true: the owner of Agrofert and finance minister avoids a conflict of interest only when going to the toilet.
We normally communicate with ODS
You are probably the most frequent speaker in the House of Representatives, while the new Chair of the Civic Democrats (ODS) Petr Fiala is also making his effort. What are the other politicians of the former coalition doing?
No matter how much we need to be heard, the essence of the opposition’s work does not happen behind the microphone but in the committees where you present alternatives and strive to fix government proposals. I can’t rule out the possibility that we will support some government bills, if the coalition sticks by its promise to act frugally. However, I am afraid that this is not going to be the case.
TOP 09 and ODS have so far limited their impact to blocking lower chamber sessions. Is it all you can do? What are your plans as opposition parties?
I am not aware of any such blocking. So far, we have twice resorted, in a very kind manner, to filibustering, as a legitimate instrument available to the opposition. I agree obstruction should not be overused. But we are not, and will not, be doing any such thing. We will certainly not follow in the footsteps of the Social Democrats whose unbelievable obstructions are, I am sure, still in the public’s memory.
Are you able to reach an agreement with ODS on certain topics?
We certainly are, and we are reaching such agreements. For example, last week we submitted the result of two years’ worth of work of TOP 09 and ODS as the former government partners. I am talking about the financial constitution. Despite it including all previous suggestions from ČSSD, the proposal was dismissed. The vote demonstrated that the socialists have a problem with the debt check provision as such. There are also other topics where we are on common ground with the Civic Democrats, such as the degree of individual responsibility and freedom. There are numerous such topics. We communicate quite regularly.
Can we trust ANO when they say taxes will not rise?
Before the year is out, Mr Babiš in his role of finance minister will bring to the lower chamber bills proposing a taxation increase compared to the level already intended to come into force on 1 January 2015. Starting next year, a set of laws related to a single payment collection point should also take effect. These laws would modify taxation significantly and provide numerous benefits, namely for self-employed people. And the fact that this is not going to happen is another reason why TOP 09 will not vote for the government in the confidence vote.
The municipal elections, the most important polls of this year, are scheduled for the autumn. The elections will show whether the traditional political parties retreat further. What is your perception of the situation in Prague and of the chances of the movement headed by Andrej Babiš?
TOP 09 can do well not only in Prague but in other cities as well. Pilsen in particular comes to mind. On the other hand, I do not expect our party to do too well in Ostrava and other cities in the north of Moravia and Bohemia. Where ANO is concerned, I think that their chances in the municipal elections this year are still quite good. Half a year is too short a time for the wider public to realise that the promises made by this party are unrealistic. The frustration at having believed in the party’s populist promises is bound to come. But it will take at least a year to show itself.
Miroslav Kalousek (53)
Began working in public administration in 1990, initially as an adviser and later as the director of a team of advisers to the deputy prime minister. Subsequently, he acted for five years as the Deputy Defence Minister for Financial Affairs. He then became an MP and chaired the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives. He was Chairman of the Christian Democratic Party – Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL) from 2003 to 2006, while he served as Minister of Finance in both the second cabinet of Mirek Topolánek as well as in the Petr Nečas administration.