Fraud probe threatens elections hopes of the ‘Czech Trump’

Andrej Babis sees rivals' dirty tricks behind calls for prosecution

Andrej Babis, leader of the Czech Republic’s populist Ano party, is congratulated by circus owner Jaromir Joo,  in 2013 after the party performed strongly in a general election. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

Andrej Babis, leader of the Czech Republic’s populist Ano party, is congratulated by circus owner Jaromir Joo, in 2013 after the party performed strongly in a general election. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

 

A Czech parliamentary committee has recommended that deputies allow police to charge controversial party leader Andrej Babis with fraud, prompting the billionaire to accuse rivals of trying to stop him winning an autumn election.

Polls give his populist Ano party a strong lead ahead of the October 20th-21st ballot, and victory would leave the pugnacious Mr Babis – who has been likened to US businessman turned president Donald Trump – well placed to become prime minister.

Parliament will now debate next week, however, whether to strip his immunity from prosecution over allegations that he illegally accessed about €2 million in European Union funding for a farm and conference centre known as the Stork’s Nest. Jaroslav Faltynek, deputy leader of Ano, faces the same procedure over the same affair.

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

Scandals

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.

“This affair is an attempt to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections,” Mr Babis said after parliament’s immunity committee ruled against him.

“It is an attempt 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.”

The head of the committee, Miroslava Nemcova, insisted that she saw no sign of a political motive in the police’s request to allow prosecution to proceed.

“From what I saw, I was not under the impression that the police were withholding information or that this was an attempt to manipulate us,” she said.

The developments could pitch the Czech Republic into a paralysing political crisis during and after the election.

Badly damaged

Ano’s popularity has not been badly damaged by previous scandals, and victory for the party would see a new government being formed by a party whose leader and deputy leader faced fraud charges. The police may also again have to seek permission to prosecute them from the new parliament.

The picture is further complicated by the role of Czech president Milos Zeman.

Mr Zeman has backed Mr Babis – with whom he shares many political enemies, a strong populist streak and opposition to EU plans to relocate refugees across the bloc – and he will nominate a new prime minister after the election.