Czech Republic's 'answer to Donald Trump' Andrej Babis on course for election success

The businessman and media mogul is one of the richest men in the country. He accepts that his story could be compared to Trump's – with one exception: 'I was never bankrupt'

Lydia Smith
Saturday 21 October 2017 08:26
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Andrej Babis is set to win the populist vote in the Czech elections
Andrej Babis is set to win the populist vote in the Czech elections

He has been referred to as the “Czech Donald Trump”. And like the US billionaire, businessman Andrej Babis is on course to achieve election success on a wave of popular support, anti-immigrant sentiment and a widespread distrust of traditional politics.

Voting in the Czech parliamentary election began on Friday and will continue into Saturday, with opinion polls predicting victory for Mr Babis’ centrist ANO movement and other protest parties.

This despite the fact that the country’s economy is performing well and immigration into the Czech Republic, a country of 10 million people, is virtually non-existent.

Nonetheless, fear of a perceived influx of refugees and rising euroscepticism have dominated the election campaign.

And Mr Babis, whose party has a wide lead in the polls, is in prime position to head a coalition government.

There are more than a few similarities between Mr Babis – one of the richest men in the Czech Republic – and Mr Trump.

Pledging to run the Czech state “like a business”, he has delivered hardline speeches against immigration.

Worth around $4.1bn according to Forbes, Mr Babis is a media mogul who owns or controls the country’s two popular newspapers. His business empire also includes farms, chemical plants and a Michelin-starred restaurant in the French Riviera.

Turning his hand to politics, he founded ANO – which stands for “Action of Dissatisfied Citizens” – in 2011, as an anti-corruption platform aiming to abolish immunity for politicians.

He has positioned himself as an anti-politics politician, frequently criticising older, established parties for alleged corruption and ineptitude.

Asked in an interview with the Washington Post this week if he agreed that his story was "similar to Trump's", Mr Babis appeared to agree – but with at least one exception.

"I was never bankrupt," he quipped.

Yet Mr Babis is not without his own critics over past business practices. Despite his anti-corruption message, he is under investigation for alleged fraud related to European Union subsidies, as well as facing accusations of communist-era secret police links.

When he was accused of tax evasion and fired as finance minister back in May, he claimed it was all part of a conspiracy to oust him from politics.

Although Mr Babis is not expected to secure a majority, a win for ANO would be yet another success for Europe’s anti-establishment wave – one week after Austria’s Freedom Party secured big gains in that in the country’s parliamentary elections.

And not everyone sees Mr Babis as fit to rule. "Let's not leave the country to oligarchs," tweeted interior minister Milan Chovanec, the acting head of ANO’s nearest rival the Social Democrats, in an appeal on Friday for Czechs to get out and vote.

"For me this election is about our stance on the European Union, refugees and is mainly [about voting] against Mr Babis," said Gabriela Kijova, 23, casting her vote in central Prague.

The latest polls ahead of the election gave ANO about 27 per cent of the vote, at least twice that of the Social Democrats and the rest of the chasing pack.

Though he has played up his credentials as a candidate for change, Mr Babis’s expected victory has not shaken markets as much as might be expected. The Czech koruna was actually up for the day on Friday afternoon as voting booths opened for 24 hours at 2pm local time.

Analysts expect the election to result in a similar three-way coalition to the outgoing government – led by Mr Babis, but without a drastic overhaul of policy. "I would not expect an earthquake (from the election result)," Martin Mejstrik, a political scientist at Prague's Charles University, told the Reuters news agency.

The right wing Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD), polling at around 10 per cent and expected to play a key role in any coalition talks, is calling for a referendum on EU membership and says the party “wants to leave, just like Britain”.

Mr Babis himself opposes more EU integration and the adoption of the euro – but he has also spoken positively of the benefits of membership, and would rather prefer the Czech Republic play a bigger role in a reformed bloc.

Voting closes at around 2pm on Saturday. Final results, which could play a big part in any coalition talks, will likely not be known until early on Sunday.

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