The Czech Republic stood on the brink of a populist new era on Saturday , after voters heavily backed a billionaire businessman who has drawn comparisons with Donald Trump, while overwhelmingly rejecting establishment parties.
Amid public disdain towards “politics as usual”, the ANO (Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party) led by Andrej Babis, the country’s second-richest man, won 30% of the vote, according to projections, with nearly 95% of all ballots counted. That leaves ANO – which means yes in Czech – as the biggest party in parliament and in prime position to form a coalition government.
Slovakian-born Babis, 63, has been accused of seeking to undermine democracy by plotting to weaken parliament and buying up large swaths of the media to silence criticism. Babis campaigned on an anti-immigration platform – capitalising on popular opposition to EU migrant quotas.
Babis’s poll victory came despite him facing criminal fraud charges over his business dealings and lingering allegations that he had been a willing collaborator with the StB – communist-era Czechoslovakia’s feared secret police force during the cold war.
Election victory for Andrej Babis – the ‘Czech Donald Trump’.
It contrasted with a snub for the Social Democrats – the current ruling coalition leaders, who won just 7.5% of the votes. A strong showing was recorded by parties on the far right and hard left, raising the possibility of a new hardline party taking office, which would seek to weaken the Czech Republic’s pro-western orientation.
The anti-immigrant Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) – led by Tomio Okamura, who is part Japanese and himself an immigrant – finished in second place with more than 11% of the poll, while the communists captured around 8.5%, opening the possibility that they could return to government for the first time since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Both parties are staunchly opposed to the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU and have adopted a friendly stance towards the government of Vladimir Putin. Babis has not ruled out a coalition with either, although he is thought likely to favour the Social Democrats (CSSD) or the Civic Democrats (ODS) as partners. He founded ANO in 2011 following a series of corruption scandals and entered the CSSD-led coalition two years later.
Babis was finance minister in the ruling coalition until May, before he was forced to resign by the outgoing Social Democrat prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, amid allegations over his taxes.
The election was fought amid claims of Kremlin interference in Czech politics through the spread of disinformation – a concern that drove the present government to become the first in the EU to establish an “anti-fake news unit”. Opponents have painted Babis as a threat to liberal democracy, but Jan Urban, a politics professor at New York University in Prague, said establishment parties were responsible for weakening democracy by fostering corruption.
“The Social Democrat party was a threat to democracy itself and it has paid the price now,” said Urban. “Babis is a product of the system that was developed by them and the Civic Democrats. It has just got to the point where he has outwitted them. There are so many wild stories about him but I would be much calmer. I don’t expect Babis to rock the boat.”
As the owner of a conglomerate of 230 firms that includes food, biofuel and fertiliser companies, Babis is worth an estimated $4.1bn. Critics say his companies are the country’s biggest recipients of EU and Czech state subsidies, while he has been in a position to influence how funds are distributed. Last week he was charged with fraud over allegations that he had illegally received EU grants to develop a hotel and conference centre, Capi Hnezdo (Stork’s Farm), in the Bohemian countryside.
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. Image courtesy of Filip Singer/EPA.