Fertiliser billionaire emerges as surprise force in snap Czech poll

Anti-corruption ‘Yes’ party led by Andrej Babis appeals to voters tired of graft and greed

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The Independent Online

A billionaire who made his fortune from food and fertiliser has emerged as a surprise force in snap general elections in the Czech Republic, as voters weary of political graft and greed rally to his strident anti-corruption and anti-establishment message.

Andrej Babis went into the vote, which began yesterday and continues today, with his Ano party fighting the Communists for second place. Opinion polls gave them around 16 per cent of the vote each, and predict that the first-placed Social Democrats could fall short of getting enough votes to form an absolute majority. Ano, which means “Yes” in Czech, could therefore have a say in the make-up of a possible coalition government.

However, some analysts say Ano’s popularity – which has surged since its formation two years ago – is more likely inadvertently to help the Communists grab a share of national power for the first time since the 1989 revolution.

Mr Babis’s strident criticism of the political elite has won him few friends in the main parties. Critics call Mr Babis a populist with no real programme, and have refused to co-operate with him. “This dynamic plays straight into the hands of the Communist Party, as they increasingly look like the most reliable partner for the Social Democrats,” Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, a London-based political consultancy, told Bloomberg.

Mr Babis, a member of the Communist Party before 1989, who made his fortune after its demise, has dismissed the idea of his party playing a role in a possible Communist comeback as “speculation”. He insists Ano offers a new choice for voters disenchanted and frustrated with the politicians who have governed for the past 20 years.

“It’s normal for politicians to forget their voters and their promises,” he told The Independent. “This election finishes on Saturday, Monday we have a day off so by Tuesday they will have forgotten everything.

“I created from nothing one of the biggest companies in the Czech Republic,” he continued. “I have made a life based on a handshake and trust. You can’t lie twice in business because if you lie once you can’t do it again: nobody will believe you. But in politics here it’s normal. They are lying and promising but never deliver on anything. They only have one programme and that is to get power and money.”

The snap elections were called after the country’s centre-right government collapsed in June, owing to a lurid spying, sex and corruption scandal that at one point threatened to engulf Petr Necas, then prime minister.

To add to the country’s woes, a recent survey by corruption watchdog Transparency International found the Czech Republic more corrupt than Rwanda.

“The country is going in the wrong way and something has to be done about it,” said the 59-year-old Mr Babis. “Two years ago I never dreamt about going into politics. I’m not a politician, but I was paying a lot of taxes and realised that people were not happy. I realised that something had to happen.”

However, Mr Babis has not managed entirely to avoid scandal himself. The press in his native Slovakia claimed to have found evidence indicating he collaborated with the StB, the communist-era Czechoslovak secret police, by spying on a colleague. “This is rubbish,” Mr Babis said.