Czech populist mogul PM tipped for re-election
A populist billionaire prime minister at odds with the European Union who featured in the Pandora Papers was tipped to win a tight two-day Czech general election wrapping up on Saturday.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis is seeking a second straight victory for his populist ANO party despite his brushes with the law.
The 67-year-old food, chemicals and media mogul is facing police charges over alleged EU subsidy fraud and the bloc’s dismay over his conflict of interest as a businessman and a politician.
Last weekend, the Pandora Papers investigation showed he had used money from his offshore firms to finance the purchase of property in southern France in 2009, including a chateau.
He slammed the allegations as a smear campaign, and opinion polls still peg the former communist as the election favourite, with support reaching up to 30 percent.
Voting in the village of Zadni Treban southwest of Prague on Saturday, Jana Selucka said she wanted opposition parties to prevail.
“I saw the extraordinary interest in voting yesterday, which was surprising. People definitely want a change that will make our lives better,” she told AFP.
Jan Hovorka from the same village said he expected the vote to “stop the oligarchisation of politics which endangers democracy”.
“Politics should be considered a public service paid from public money and not an opportunity to make as much money as possible,” he told AFP.
Casting his ballot in the northern town of Lovosice, Babis himself called for “stability for this unstable period”.
“We should not change the government now,” he said.
Polling stations will close at 1200 GMT, with the results expected later on Saturday.
– ‘Textbook populism’ -“The key question is whether the populist policy will prevail over traditional and more responsible politicians,” said Tomas Lebeda, an analyst at Palacky University in the eastern city of Olomouc.
Babis’s main rivals are two groupings, one combining the anti-establishment Pirate Party with the centrist Mayors and Independents, and the other a three-party centre-right coalition called Together.
Babis leads a minority government with the left-wing Social Democrats, tacitly backed by the Communist Party which ruled the former totalitarian Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989.
“ANO pursues the type of populism we know from textbooks — a strong leader seeking to split society and create a tribal identity,” Lebeda told AFP.
– Communists out? -The Czech economy, heavily dependent on car production and exports to the eurozone which the EU member of 10.7 million is yet to join, is on the mend after the Covid-19 lockdowns.
But the pandemic and increases in pensions and public sector wages, recently approved by Babis’s cabinet, have made the public finance gap soar.
“He has extremely burdened the state budget to hand out the perks and he keeps saying he won’t raise taxes. I would call this fiscal populism,” Lebeda said.
Other parties to reckon with include the anti-Muslim far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) movement led by Tokyo-born entrepreneur Tomio Okamura.
The Social Democrats and the Communists are in play, but they may fail to reach the five percent threshold to enter parliament, according to recent polls.
It will be up to the pro-Russian President Milos Zeman, Babis’s old ally, to tap the new prime minister.
“He will do his best to keep ANO in power,” said Josef Mlejnek, an analyst at Charles University in Prague.
But Zeman is grappling with health problems that have confined him to his residence for the vote as local media speculate he may struggle to even nominate the prime minister.