'Czech Trump' faces tough talks to build coalition

Billionaire Andrej Babis, leader of the ANO party, and his wife Monika at the party's headquarters in Prague last Saturday after the country's parliamentary elections. As the second-richest Czech, Mr Babis has drawn comparisons to US President Donald
Billionaire Andrej Babis, leader of the ANO party, and his wife Monika at the party's headquarters in Prague last Saturday after the country's parliamentary elections. As the second-richest Czech, Mr Babis has drawn comparisons to US President Donald Trump.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Parties refuse to form govt with Andrej Babis due to fraud charge, despite election triumph

PRAGUE • Czech billionaire Andrej Babis has hit his first obstacle in forming a new Cabinet after dominating the country's parliamentary elections, with potential coalition partners refusing to join him in government as long as he is facing criminal fraud charges.

After promising to run the state like a business, fight Muslim immigration and oppose deeper integration with the European Union, Mr Babis' ANO party won 29.6 per cent of the ballots on Saturday, getting 78 mandates in the 200-seat Parliament.

The eurosceptic Civic Democrats were second with 25 seats, followed by two anti-establishment parties, the Pirates and the anti-Muslim SPD, which secured 22 mandates each. Mainstream and pro-EU political forces suffered heavy losses.

As the second-richest Czech, Mr Babis has drawn comparisons to United States President Donald Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

He took credit for one of the fastest economic expansions in the EU and the bloc's lowest unemployment, but his opponents have accused him of conflicts of interest tied to his agriculture and media businesses.

A month before the vote, he was charged with fraud. He has rejected the allegations, but his current coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, rejected joining him in power as long as the case remains open.

"He may not reach an agreement in the first round of talks but later, some of the parties may reconsider their stances," said Professor Pavel Saradin, who teaches political science at Masaryk University in Brno.

DEALS COULD BE STRUCK

It depends on what he offers them in exchange for letting him stay in the government and keep his immunity. And if all attempts fail, he can certainly form a minority government.

PROFESSOR PAVEL SARADIN, who teaches political science at Masaryk University in Brno, on Mr Andrej Babis' options in persuading coalition partners to join him.

"It depends on what he offers them in exchange for letting him stay in the government and keep his immunity. And if all attempts fail, he can certainly form a minority government," Prof Saradin added.

During the campaign, ANO criticised the EU for overreaching, and vowed to keep Muslim refugees out of what has been one of the least-affected countries in Europe's worst migration crisis since World War II.

After the election victory, Mr Babis called ANO a pro-European party, while reiterating his opposition to deeper integration within the bloc.

Still, Mr Babis is unlikely to push for a radical change of Czech foreign policy, which is anchored by memberships in the EU and Nato, according to Dr Vit Dostal, the head of international relations think-tank AMO in Prague. "Babis has a transactional approach to policy decisions," Dr Dostal said.

Mr Babis has invited leaders of the other eight parliamentary parties for talks. He said there was no proof to support the fraud charge and called for it to end. He also repeated a vow not to create a coalition with the Communists and the SPD.

President Milos Zeman has said he will meet party leaders after Oct 28 and give the coalition-forming mandate to the ballot's winner.

Said Mr Babis: "I hope that our government will be set up quickly."

Fired from the finance minister's post in May, Mr Babis, 63, has boasted of streamlining government operations and pushing through a law requiring retailers to link cash registers to the Finance Ministry to boost budget revenue and crack down on tax evasion.

At the same time, he has railed against "meddling" from Brussels and refuses deeper economic integration with the EU, a stance that resonated with voters in the bloc's most eurosceptic member.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline ''Czech Trump' faces tough talks to build coalition'. Print Edition | Subscribe