Ian Cobain, The Guardian
One of central Europe’s richest men is set to become the next prime minister of the Czech Republic after convincing voters he is the man to stem immigration, fight corruption and banish the country’s establishment from power.
Andrej Babiš, a tycoon turned politician who has been compared to Donald Trump, led his new party Ano, which translates as “Yes”, to a resounding victory in elections at the weekend, winning almost 30% of the vote – three times as many as his nearest rival.
The election ended a quarter of a century of political dominance by the major Czech parties of government, with the Social and Christian Democrats scoring just 6% and 7% respectively.
The electorate turned sharply away from Liberal and pro-European parties, with the centre-right Civic Democrats winning 11% of the vote, while the direct democracy advocates of the Pirate party won 10%.
The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, an ally of Vladimir Putin, was quick to announce that he would name Babiš as the next prime minister, although it was far from clear how the victor would form the necessary coalition.
“My aim is that when I appoint the prime minister, and that will be Andrej Babiš, that there is certainty or at least high probability that this prime minister will be successful in a parliamentary vote of confidence,” Zeman said in a live interview on the news website Blesk.cz.
Both the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats have ruled themselves out of any coalition, and not just because Babiš’ abrasive style and confrontational policies have alienated many of their leading members.
Many are reluctant to ally themselves with a self-styled anti-corruption campaigner who is himself mired in allegations of fraud. There are also questions about whether Babiš will enjoy immunity from prosecution if he were able to form a government.
Babiš is a bundle of contradictions: a self-proclaimed anti-establishment figure who is a former finance minister, billionaire and media mogul and an anti corruption campaigner who this month was charged with a €2m fraud. Babiš denies wrongdoing and has dismissed the case as politically motivated.
While Babiš presents himself as a self-made man, the source of his riches is rooted in the days that followed the country’s 1989 Velvet Revolution and the subsequent break-up of Czechoslovakia.
It was during this chaotic period that Babiš wrested control of a previously state-owned conglomerate through the most opaque of refinancing deals. His role within the pre-revolutionary state is also unclear: he firmly denies allegations that he was close to the StB, the Communist-era secret police. Despite his best efforts, however – including multiple courtroom battles – the allegations of collaboration will not go away.
What is clear is that Babiš has struck a powerful chord with many Czech voters, particularly in rural areas, where people warm to his scepticism about the power of Brussels and his no-nonsense style.
Many were also impressed by his determination, when finance minister, to get to grips with the national debt, crack down on tax evaders and kickstart some much-needed infrastructure projects.
Unusually for such a populist politician, his victory comes not at a time of economic downturn in the Czech economy but at a moment when the country of 10.6 million people is enjoying strong growth, robust wage increases and low levels of unemployment.
In recent years many Czechs have been far from confident in their country’s economic stability, however, and have come to resent immigration and what they see as cronyism in government and the legal system.