Fast Confession – Head of the Pirate Party Ivan Bartoš: Babiš has been avoiding any debate for three years, he’s scared
If you arrange a meeting with Pirate leader Ivan Bartoš, he arrives right on time and has a maximum of thirty minutes to spend with you. They will be cut short by passers-by who greet him, shake his hand and want to discuss the state of the country with him. It is interesting to watch. Then when this dreadlocked and perpetually smiling politician waltzes to you, he answers any question very quickly but with ease and a smile. You can see that he has his vision and the future of not only himself but of this republic down to a tee. In an interview for LP-Life.com, we talked with Ivan about what is happening in Afghanistan, what impact it will have on Europe, and most importantly, about Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, because these two roosters on the same yard are quite the stick in each other’s craw...
What do you think about the current situation in Afghanistan, what will it mean for the Czech Republic and how will it be reflected in the upcoming elections?
First of all, this is something quite fundamental. Nobody expected that the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the allied troops would develop so quickly, and so bad, that the Taliban would take power in the country in a very short time, which is what has happened now. There were many people working in the embassies in Afghanistan, citizens, diplomats, and their families from their respective countries. Then there were a large number of Afghans who were helping the soldiers. In the Czech Republic, it has been reduced to translators, and they are now effectively under threat. The Czech Government hesitated for a very long time about how to approach this issue, about who to help. When the Taliban appeared in Kabul and advanced towards the airport, suddenly there was a government meeting on a Saturday, and now we are having a hard time getting people out of the region. By Friday, the Americans had over a thousand people, maybe around two thousand people evacuated from the region, while we have just two planes flying back and forth. (Dated as of Monday, August 16 - ed.)
So the first thing, I don't know if it was because of Mr Okamura or if the subject doesn't fit with the election, the government has neglected this factual situation where people who have been cooperating with us are in danger. Secondly, there is now, I think, a UN Security Council meeting coming up, and there is also talk in the European Commission about possible waves of migration. I think it is important to enter into negotiations with neighbouring countries where people are likely to flee. They are not going to fly, but they are going to go on foot. There were thousands of people in Kabul seeking some kind of safety, hoping that the capital would not fall, and it turned out that there was a transfer of power to the Taliban with virtually no serious resistance.
The Taliban's statement at the moment is that they are urging people and officials to keep going to work, that nothing is going to change. Personally, I do not have much faith in that, and indeed it may create tensions that will mean migration from Afghanistan. The question now is how this will be handled, how the countries through which the migration wave is passing, such as Turkey, will deal with it. I am glad that the European Union, but also the United Nations, is starting to act.
How does this work for you, or Mr Okamura? How do you think this will affect the changes in the pre-election polls?
It is important to address these things. The Czech Republic has a relatively strict asylum procedure, there is no unified asylum procedure for the whole of Europe. I think the European Commission needs to step up what has already been proposed, which is active assistance in places where this is happening, rigorous border controls and risk assessments if any country in the European Union decides to grant asylum to someone. The Czech Republic is not a destination for migration, our situation is specific, but then there are countries like France or Germany.
Because of the COVID, migration has not been talked about, and now, perhaps, it could be an issue again. But we will see how neighbouring countries behave, where these people primarily go to escape the war, given that the Afghan President himself is in exile in neighbouring Uzbekistan. This situation must be addressed. I am really glad that the alliance, the UN and the European Union are already facing up to this, that the UN Security Council will be discussing it.
I think this could help Okamura, who doesn't want any migrants here, in the elections.
They didn't even target the Czech Republic in the first migration crisis though, so for the Czech Republic, this problem is virtual. In 2015, we the Pirates were one of the first political parties to issue a comprehensive position on migration, where we rejected illegal migration, defined how the common European defence should be dealt with, how people should be screened, how return policy should work when the conflict becomes stable. We stand by that. If someone raises this issue in the elections, from the Czech Republic's point of view, it is more a question of covering up the COVID mess-ups or the fact that the state has a huge financial deficit and will continue having it for another year, perhaps even bigger than during the COVID. This is completely unique. It is an issue that parties often try to use to cover up their factual emptiness about how this country has been mismanaged and all the stealing that happened during the COVID. We'll see how that plays out at the elections, but it's hard to tell right now.
What do you think about racism and xenophobia here in the Czech Republic?
I don't think people are inherently set up that way, they are just frustrated by their often difficult life situations. For years, politicians have been leading them to believe that it's the fault of this group of people or another, and they rouse and encourage these feelings. And it is not just parties like the SPD that use hatred as a lift to seats in parliament. We clearly rejected illegal migration or quotas as a dysfunctional mechanism in 2015 and presented a solution that tackles the causes of migration considering security as well as preserving humanity.
I interviewed Mr Babiš sometime in June and told him that the Pirates had outpaced him...
You provoked him, these reactions of his! (laughs).
...but the latest polls show Babiš leading again.
It has to do with several aspects. We're having a relatively quiet summer now, except that a year ago it was the same and then the COVID wave came in and cost 30,000 people their lives. Andrej Babiš didn't want to take precautionary steps before the elections because he is a populist, he didn't want people to be angry that they were being restricted, and that led the country into another lockdown. I would not like to see this repeated or forgotten because of some PR fights going on about an issue that is not relevant at the moment. Which maybe happened back then, when the loosening happened and the summer months kicked in, people saw themselves more on vacation, and maybe at that point, they didn't even want to acknowledge what was going on here that year. That's the first thing.
The second thing is when we shot up in the polls. Kantar surprised me with their result of 34 % support for us, we as a coalition had set a target of a minimum of 25 %. A huge disinformation campaign was launched. But not only via emails scaring seniors that someone is producing, where we were evaluated by experts as the most frequent target of the Czech disinformation scene, but also through the statements of the Prime Minister himself. After all, he was scaring people on the House of Commons plenum that the Pirates want to tax your flats and move migrants in with you. Which is a plain lie. We also took him to court for that statement, we'll see how it goes, but you know how it is here with the courts.
There are a few other aspects to it. I spend almost every day in the regions now. I've been travelling almost all week every week since the House ended, and people are interested in the issues that we're dealing with. They're worried about the debt, they're worried about not having affordable education, but they're also worried about schools not opening in the mode that's needed. These are real problems in the Czech Republic, and the Prime Minister is doing everything he can to squirm his way through them. He’s having the inflation go through the roof and the government keeps saying that they‘re not responsible for the development of the country over the last eight years. That is the way the pandemic was dealt with. Half the money, according to the Supreme Audit Office, did not go to COVID-related things at all. The country is running on debt, the economy has slowed down, and money has been given to groups of people who did not need it at the time. I was given 70 000 a year through the abolition of the super gross wage, which I did not want. People who needed money didn't get it.
And the vicious circle keeps on spiralling, energy prices are rising, and Andrej Babiš is already trying to blame it on someone else. This happens when energy prices are rising, but the prices of services have also risen significantly because the government has been cutting them, and it turned out to be against the law, as the court confirmed. A lot of businesses closed, the ones that survived logically didn't have profits at that point, they went into debt. Of course, there’s also a certain group of people who can afford to suddenly spend significantly more, but that's how the market works.
These are the real problems of the Czech Republic. Now I will return to the topic you asked about. We need to focus together within the European Community, the United Nations and even the Alliance on the situation in Afghanistan from the perspective of the security of the people who live there. It was known that if the armies that are there, including our troops, but especially the American troops, were withdrawn, that the situation there could develop in this way. However, nobody expected that it would be in such a state in a month's time.
What are you doing to get back ahead of Babiš?
We are presenting our program, we are doing a contact campaign in the regions. Even given that the elections were announced nine months ago, I have been appealing to the parties to show honestly how they have reported their campaign costs. We have every presentation, every person who does marketing or media work for us recorded in campaign costs since then. Now people have started ordering fence banners. Some people ask, why now? The reason is that even a banner that somebody puts up on their fence gets recorded in the campaign. I think the cost is about 500 crowns per month. If we had banners and billboards all over the country for three months, nobody who honestly charges for a campaign would fit into that.
We are now concentrating on both the campaign and the outdoor presentation, as well as on the sponsorship of contributions, on a large part of the campaign, which has now started with a contact campaign in the regions. And it's going to be ramping up because the critical time in terms of the election is going to be September and early October.
Those who honestly account for and declare the costs in the campaign obviously feel the limit, not like Mr Babiš, who campaigns with people's money from his position in the government – a book does not count as a campaign, a letter does not count as a campaign, that’s how they cheat. Andrej Babiš uses all means, including the front pages of his newspapers. He prints an article, signed by him, although he did not write it, on the front page of iDnes. That is the conflict of interest, that is the control of the state.
How does it feel when you two meet in person?
It doesn't happen actually, he avoids me all the time. I talked to him when we were dealing with the COVID, when I was discussing with him the proposal to dissolve the House and hold early elections, which I think was the right thing to do at the time. Even given that the government had no confidence before it was bought back from the communists, I don't know for what price, what the tradeoff was. But otherwise, I'm at least glad there will be the final debates. It probably won't be one-on-one, which dilutes the possibility of meeting Andrej Babiš, but he has systematically avoided any kind of debate, even a moderated media duel with me, for three years. He is scared.
Would you like to?
I am not afraid of Andrej Babiš. His house of cards made up of lies is very easy to shoot down with facts.
Now I’d like to hear about your personal life.
It's great. Bertík turned a year old a week ago.
Three years ago, I asked you about the same thing. You wanted a baby. You said you have no luck with that, now I see it worked out. I'm happy for you.
So it did, yes. Everything worked out just fine, he had four and a half kilos at birth, and he has almost twelve kilos in one year now.
Aren't you sorry you're running a campaign that invades your privacy right now?
No, I’m not. I try to be with my family as much as possible, I have a great wife.
You said that three years ago as well.
That's right. Amélka's 15 now, she's a young lady who's choosing where to go to high school. It's a pleasure. Of course, I'd like to spend more time with Bertík, Amélka and Lydia, so when I have a part or all of the weekend off, I'm outside on the playground with him, we go for a walk with my wife. Bertík eats things off the table, he doesn't want any of his baby food, he wants fries...
Has that changed you? To Amélka you were more like a friend, now you're a dad.
It's all new to me. Even right after the birth, when the nurse came in and asked who the caring parent was here. My wife was lying on the bed, so I said "me". The nurse started - this is the baby, this is how you wipe his butt, this is how you put the nappy on, write down every pee and poo and she left.
Are you managing everything?
Yeah. But of course, Lydia is the one staying on maternity/parental leave - I don't understand why they call it leave, because it's not leave – and she is politically active as well. I try to contribute whenever I can.
You also used to enjoy DJing.
These times I'm more likely to play at a Pirate event now and then. Only from the point of view of the campaign, but also the COVID, when a politician does it honestly, it's significantly more work, there's not much time for hobbies. I've been out to play cards about twice a year. But what I do keep is reading every night when I get to bed, so even if I can't do anything else, I'll at least read a page.
How about working out?
We do that. I went this morning. But the truth is that if, for example, there was a challenging session of the House, also with having Bertík now, the frequency can decrease. So for a year and a half, we've actually managed to go three times a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 6:30. Now we've had two months of outages, we went maybe only once or twice a week. We're taking the 5:30 train to Moravia tomorrow, these are the times you just can't get to it. But we're going on Wednesday.
Are we ready for the next wave of the COVID, if it comes?
In the regions, yes, but at the central level, I'm afraid not. We have eleven unanswered interpellations to Adam Vojtěch. In a month, summer will be over, and pupils will be starting school. Today the government is supposed to present a plan, but there has to be a comprehensive strategy, and if anyone has one, I don't think anyone has seen it yet. Not just for the worst scenario, but for all scenarios. After all, it's been so long with the COVID, and the government hasn't moved much from the blanket on-and-off method.
I'd be in favour of finishing up on vaccination, because there are still people who wanted to get vaccinated and couldn't, they have a date set, they're waiting for it. I would like to see no discrimination against people who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not want to be vaccinated. Again, these proposals are on hold, although it works in Austria, to accept antibodies as the equivalent of testing. Which if you go for vaccinations can be dangerous if you have high levels of antibodies, but that's completely ignored by the government.
And I miss a strategic plan. We communicate with the government. Mainly to make sure that we don't repeat last year's mistakes, and of course to make sure that we don't repeat the populist pretence that COVID doesn’t happen until after the election. I think that was the fundamental problem that led us to become the "worst in COVID". There are a lot of things that we and the government discuss on a regular basis, yet in the media the Prime Minister or Mr Havlíček and co., as they‘re told to do by their advisers, say that the opposition is not helping. But a lot of the proposals that the government eventually implemented, albeit nine months later when it was too late, were based on our original plan, Budoucnost řešíme teď (Solving the Future Now), which we presented last April. Adam Vojtěch had it on his desk, the government had it. So I hope they have learned their lesson, at least in this.