Ian Cobain, The Guardian, October 23, 2017
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.
Babiš, who is estimated by Forbes to have a net worth of $4bn, founded Ano (which stands for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) in 2012, saying it was opposed to immigration and committed to eradicating systemic corruption in Czech public life. He seems to regard the party as being inseparable from himself, telling one interviewer: “The party is connected to my person. The party is me.”
One of Ano’s sources of funding has been donations from subsidiaries of Agrofert, an enormous agriculture, foods and chemical conglomerate controlled by Babiš. According to research conducted by a Czech NGO, between 2012 and 2016 more than a dozen Agrofert subsidiaries – which had drawn almost 1.4bn Czech koruna (£50m) in EU subsidies between them – donated around 31m koruna (£1.1m) to Ano.
A year after launching Ano – and months before the 2013 parliamentary election – Babiš bought the media group Mafra, the publisher of two of the country’s best-selling and most influential newspapers, MF Dnes and Lidové Noviny.
Resignations of senior journalists soon followed, and Babiš was soon scorned in some Prague circles as Babišconi, a reference to the scandal-tainted former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
He moved to consolidate his holdings in Czech media, and now owns a major internet news portal and radio and television channels, all of which appear reluctant to criticise him.
Babiš insists he never meddles in editorial affairs.
At the parliamentary elections that followed, Babiš’s party won 19% of the vote and entered into a coalition government.
Babiš was appointed finance minister and first deputy prime minister, posts that he held until May this year when he was sacked after a long-running coalition dispute over suspicions that he evaded taxes when buying bonds from Agrofert – an allegation he denies.
Now he has been re-elected, Babiš’s parliamentary immunity will be restored and a second vote would be required in order to remove it once more.
Whether this will happen – and what will happen next in the Czech Republic’s journey from the land of the Velvet Revolution to a home for populist and confrontational politics – may depend on the outcome of the protracted negotiations to form a coalition.
Zeman is expected to meet Babiš on Monday to discuss the next steps, but suggested the formal appointment would happen later. He said he would call the first session of the new parliament after the maximum 30 days allowed by the constitution, to provide time for coalition talks.