Czech election likely to hand power to scandal-plagued tycoon

Andrej Babis dubbed the ‘Czech Trump’ for his riches and populist rhetoric

The leader of Ano party Andrej Babis and his wife Monika arrive to cast their votes in parliamentary elections in Prague on Friday. Photograph:  David W Cerny/Reuters

The leader of Ano party Andrej Babis and his wife Monika arrive to cast their votes in parliamentary elections in Prague on Friday. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

 

The Czech Republic has begun voting in parliamentary elections that are expected to hand victory to the populist Ano party of billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis, whose standing appears to have weathered a recent storm of scandal.

Voting will continue until Saturday afternoon and first results are expected that evening, but Mr Babis’s legal travails and fractious relations with other parties mean the Czech Republic’s next government may not take shape for some time.

Likened to US president Donald Trump for his wealth and anti-establishment rhetoric, Mr Babis was charged this month with illegally accessing some €2 million in European Union funds a decade ago to build his “Stork Nest” farm and conference centre near Prague.

Just a few days later in Slovakia, where Mr Babis (63) was born, a court annulled earlier rulings that cleared him of collaborating with Czechoslovakia’s secret police.

Mr Babis rejects both the fraud charge and suspicions that he worked with the communist-era security services, calling the claims part of a campaign by the Czech elite to torpedo his bid for power.

Polls suggest his argument resonates with the many Czechs who are weary of corruption and of the parties that have dominated their country’s post-communist politics, the centre-left Social Democrats and centre-right Civic Democrats.

The latest surveys indicated that about 25 per cent of voters would back Ano, which stands for the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens and means “yes” in Czech.

Such a showing would probably put the five-year-old party well clear of the Social Democrats and the Communists, which polls gave 12.5 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

Economic resurgence

Having served as finance minister in a coalition government until he was fired in May, Mr Babis has claimed credit for the resurgence of the Czech economy, which is enjoying strong growth and the EU’s lowest unemployment rate.

His anti-immigration stance is also popular in a nation that broadly opposes the resettlement of refugees in Europe, and his criticism of Brussels pleases Czechs who are disappointed with their standard of living after 13 years of EU membership.

This disaffection is also likely to fuel relatively strong showings from the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party and the anti-corruption Pirate Party, which took 9.5 per cent and 8.5 per cent respectively in a recent poll.

Mr Babis’s critics depict him as a power-hungry danger to democracy, who may seek to bypass or dismantle the Czech Republic’s system of checks and balances if he manages to marry political control to his vast wealth.

Major media outlets are among hundreds of firms that make up Mr Babis’s Agrofert conglomerate, which he transferred to a trust this year after parliament tightened the rules on conflict of interest.

Czech president Milos Zeman – who shares Mr Babis’s Euroscepticism and anti-immigration stance – has indicated that he would nominate the billionaire to be prime minister if Ano won the election.

Potential coalition partners may object to a premier who is accused of fraud and dogged by suspicions of communist-era collaboration, however, raising the prospect of long and difficult talks before a new government is in place.