Populist billionaire Andrej Babis scores big Czech election win, seeks partners to rule

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Czech billionaire Andrej Babis won a thumping victory in Saturday's election as voters shunned traditional parties and gave a mandate to the anti-establishment businessman pledging to fight political corruption while facing fraud charges himself.
Czech billionaire Andrej Babis and his wife Monika smile at ANO headquarters in Prague, Oct 21, 2017. PHOTO: AFP
Andrej Babis (centre), Slovak-born billionaire, leads the anti-corruption and anti-euro ANO (Yes) movement. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PRAGUE (AFP) - With voters upset over traditional parties and orders from Brussels, billionaire populist Andrej Babis, dubbed the "Czech Trump", clinched victory in the Czech Republic's election on Saturday (Oct 21), while eurosceptics and an anti-Islam group backed by France's National Front made strong gains.

State election officials citing results from 99.9 per cent of polling stations said Babis's anti-corruption and anti-euro ANO (Yes) movement won with 29.7 per cent support (78 parliament seats) followed by the eurosceptic right-wing ODS party on 11.3 per cent (25 seats). Turnout was at 60 per cent.

Despite the country's economic success, analysts say many Czechs who are heavily in debt or working long hours for low wages feel they have been left behind and are turning to populist, eurosceptic and far-right anti-EU parties to vent their ire.

Far-right and far-left anti-EU parties made gains in the fragmented vote that put nine parties into the 200-seat Czech parliament with few obvious coalition allies among them, something analysts warned could trigger instability, even chaos.

Babis insisted ANO was "pro-European" and did "not threaten democracy" in a televised victory speech in which he also railed against a two-speed Europe, while inviting all parties in parliament for coalition talks.

But most parties appeared to shun the controversial billionaire, who was recently indicted on suspicion of EU subsidies fraud.

ODS leader Petr Fiala ruled out going into coalition with ANO, insisting it will not be able to deliver on its promises.

The anti-establishment Pirates led by the dreadlocked Ivan Bartos made their debut in parliament, scoring 10.8 percent (22 seats) and coming in third. Bartos also ruled out teaming up with Babis.

The far-right Freedom and Free Democracy (SPD) party of Tokyo-born entrepreneur and lawmaker Tomio Okamura scored 10.6 per cent (22 seats) support on strong anti-EU, anti-migrant and anti-Islam rhetoric, similar to surging far-right parties in neighbouring Austria and Germany.

France's far-right National Front Marine Le Pen sent Okamura a message of support before the vote.


A 63-year-old Slovak-born chemicals, food and media tycoon, Babis has vowed to steer clear of the euro zone and echoes other eastern EU leaders who accuse Brussels of attempting to limit national sovereignty by imposing rules like migrant quotas. He favours a united Europe and balks at talk of a "Czexit".

The anti-EU Communists took fifth spot winning 7.8 per cent support (15 seats), while the left-wing Social Democrats (CSSD) who head the outgoing coalition government took a bruising, coming in sixth with 7.3 per cent (15 seats) of the vote.

Social Democrat party leader Lubomir Zaoralek appeared to rule out forging a new coalition with Babis's ANO. The two parties currently form the government along with the smaller KDU-CSL Christian Democrats who scored 5.8 per cent support (10 seats).

"I think the number of votes suggests above all we'll end up in opposition. I think it's hard to negotiate about a government with these votes," Zaoralek told reporters in Prague.

KDU-CSL leader Pavel Belobradek also said his party was not keen on cooperating with Babis, due to his indictment.

Outgoing Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, a Social Democrat, was shell-shocked by the rise of the far-right.

"How is it possible that in the Czech Republic, in a situation when the country is doing very well, when we are a stable, safe country, we have achieved many things in the social sphere in the past four years, people are increasingly in favour of extreme views?" Sobotka said.

Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Palacky University in the central city of Olomouc, told AFP he saw the SPD's gains "as a threat to liberal democracy" in this EU member of 10.6 million people.


Voting in Prague, pensioner Alena Kolarova praised Babis for "restoring order in public finances and tax collection" during his three-year stint as finance minister that ended in May.

"I think his policy is for the people," she told AFP.

With joblessness at 3.8 per cent in September, an economy heavily reliant on car exports is slated to grow by a healthy 3.6 per cent this year.

Despite the strong economy, young Prague voter Jiri Chaloupek said he chose the SPD as "this country needs a change, a rather radical change."

Analyst Lebeda said "we have a very strange atmosphere with a number of emotions that absolutely do not correspond to the social and economic reality."

"I'm asking myself what the elections would look like if we weren't in such good shape economically."

Two small centre-right parties also entered parliament, each scoring around 5 per cent of the vote.

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