‘Czech Trump’ charged with fraud ahead of likely election victory

Andrej Babis accuses Czech political elite of conspiring to keep him from power

Czech billionaire and leader of the Ano  political movement, Andrej Babis, during a pre-election debate on October 4th, 2017, in Vsetaty village, central Bohemia, near Prague. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

Czech billionaire and leader of the Ano political movement, Andrej Babis, during a pre-election debate on October 4th, 2017, in Vsetaty village, central Bohemia, near Prague. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

 

With 10 days to go before a Czech parliamentary election that his populist Ano party is expected to win, billionaire Andrej Babis has been charged with fraud over the alleged misuse of European Union funds.

Mr Babis – whose wealth and anti-establishment rhetoric have seen him compared to US president Donald Trump – is accused of illegally accessing some €2 million for a farm and conference centre known as the Stork Nest. Jaroslav Faltynek, the deputy leader of Ano, has also been charged in the same case.

“I have received an announcement of the launch of criminal proceedings in the Stork Nest pseudo-case,” Mr Babis (63) said in response to the charges. “I immediately filed a complaint against the decision and handed the case over to my lawyer.”

Mr Babis denies wrongdoing, as he has in a series of scandals that ultimately saw him forced out as finance minister in May, after his initial refusal to accept dismissal prompted thousands of people to protest in Prague and other Czech cities.

Transferred ownership

Investigators believe Mr Babis transferred ownership of the Stork Nest from his Agrofert conglomerate – which includes hundreds of companies, including two national newspapers and a radio station – to make it eligible for an EU small business credit, before later returning it to the bigger holding company.

A Czech parliamentary committee in August granted a police request for immunity from prosecution to be lifted from Mr Babis and Mr Faltynek, and last month deputies voted to strip the two men of legal protection.

Mr Babis has called the case “an attempt to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections...[and] to undermine our position and the public support we enjoy. The aim is for us to take a beating in the elections and for the traditional parties to set up a government without us.”

Opinion polls ahead of the October 20th-21st elections suggest the controversy has not damaged Mr Babis’s or Ano’s popularity among Czechs, many of whom are disillusioned with the long-established centre-right and centre-left parties that have dominated the country’s post-communist era.

Recent surveys have given Ano between 26 and 34 per cent, more than 10 per cent ahead of rivals and well up on its 19 per cent showing in the 2013 elections.

Populist Czech president Milos Zeman – who shares Mr Babis’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigration stance – has indicated that he will nominate him to be premier if Ano does win the election.