In Center of Europe, Politics Takes a Trumpian Turn with Rise of Anti-immigrant Billionaire

Griff Witte, Washington Post, October 17, 2017

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The man poised to lead the Czech Republic following elections this week is a polarizing billionaire who vows to drain the swamp of this capital city’s politics, run his country like a business and keep out Muslim immigrants.

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Andrej Babis is so similar to the U.S. president in profile and outlook that he feels compelled to offer at least one key distinction.

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Babis won’t be alone, either. If elections on Friday and Saturday vault him to the prime minister’s office, as polls suggest they probably will, he could plant a flag further west for a strongman vision of government that is testing young democracies to the east — and in the process straining European unity.

“He’s no democrat,” said Pehe, a former adviser to Vaclav Havel, the Czech anti-communist dissident-turned-president. “The danger here is that the Czech Republic could slide to the European periphery, along with Hungary and Poland.”

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But the Czech Republic does have persistently low wages, along with a political class that is notoriously beset by corruption. It also has older residents who yearn for the simpler days of their communist youth, when the all-powerful state protected them.

The combination has made the nation of 10 million fertile ground for populism. And Babis, the country’s second-wealthiest man, has seized the opportunity.

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“People are saying that I’m a danger to democracy in this country, which of course is ridiculous,” he said, his gray suit neatly pressed, his gray hair and beard trimmed tight. “I’m a danger to this corrupt system.”

It’s a message that he repeats relentlessly on the trail, where he signs copies of his slickly produced campaign book and gives out his cellphone number to people who say they could use his help battling the turgid Czech bureaucracy.

“He’s a normal guy,” said Zdena Krskova, a 69-year-old who was shopping for dinner one day at an open-air market in a working-class neighborhood of north Prague. “Plus, he has enough money, so he doesn’t need to steal from the people.”

Babis’s support is concentrated outside Prague, in smaller cities and towns that haven’t shared the same bump in prosperity as the country’s tourist-thronged capital. It also comes from older voters who are looking to the billionaire to cut through the messy logistics of democratic politics and use a firm hand to restore a simpler, bygone time, said Daniel Prokop, head of political polling for the research firm Median.

“His voters are authoritarian-oriented,” Prokop said. “If you ask whether it’s better to have a strong leader or democratic decision-making, his people say strong leader.”

And there’s a reason they gravitate to Babis.

“He’s used to getting his way,” said Jan Machacek, who runs a think tank funded by Babis’s firms. “Compromise is not in his genes.”

Machacek, who was a dissident during communist times, said the billionaire’s political rise reflects widespread disappointment among Czech voters who had high hopes for a democratic system they thought could solve the nation’s ills. Instead, he said, they got weak parties and corrupt politicians.

The consequence of such disillusionment, he said, “could be a lot worse than Mr. Babis.”

Unlike Trump, Machacek said, Babis is no showboat. He is a demanding businessman but doesn’t deliberately sow chaos.

Yet Babis has shown a willingness to pick fights with powerful European leaders, particularly on the issue of refugees.

In the interview, Babis mocked programs under which E.U. members are supposed to share the burden of taking in asylum seekers, disparaged the notion of a “multicultural society” and, referring to the German chancellor, blamed the 2015 refugee crisis on “the stupidity of Madame Merkel.”

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All of which suggests that, like Trump, Babis may shift course on some of his campaign promises once he confronts the reality of governing. And unlike Trump, Gabal said, Babis is capable of admitting when he’s wrong.

“When you put data in front of him and say, ‘You’re not right. The situation is different,’ he’ll look at it. And accept it,” said Gabal, whose party has been in coalition with Babis’s — and may be once again post-election. “He’s not stupid.”

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