Andrej Babis, a Czech billionaire compared to Donald Trump for his attacks on established political parties and the EU, looks likely to become the country's next leader after elections. Tim Gosling reports from Prague.
Bankrolled by Andrej Babis' agrochemicals conglomerate Agrofert, the centrist and populist ANO party is on course to take around 30 percent of the vote in elections on October 20-21. Many Czechs have abandoned the established political parties that have spent the quarter of a century or so since the fall of communism mired in corruption scandals.
Babis, the country's second-richest man, cast his vote on Friday afternoon (above). The polls will remain open until 2 p.m. local time (1200 UTC) on Saturday.
The businessman turned politician ran on promises to clean up the system. He often uses crude language that seems to connect with many voters. Members of traditional parties have been branded idiots, and journalists morons.
However, Babis has been at the center of his own series of scandals over recent months. He has been accused of using media outlets he bought in recent years to attack rivals, while allegations of financial impropriety saw him sacked as finance minister in June. This month the magnate was charged with fraud over a €2 million ($2.4 million) EU subsidy, while a case accusing Babis of working with the communist-era secret police has been reopened.
Yet supporters remain convinced the "establishment" is trying to shoot Babis down. The billionaire will "get things done" and deal with the "criminals" amongst the political elite, according to many in the crowd at an ANO campaign event in Hradec Kralove — a town of around 90,000 located 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of Prague.
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Queueing for free coffee and doughnuts made by Agrofert's local baking company, most attendees are older, supporting suggestions that those who grew up under communism seek a strong leader to shelter them from globalization and terrorism.
"I'm called the great danger to democracy, but that 'democracy' — as far as the traditional parties mean it — is corruption. Write it down, write it here!" Babis commands in an interview the following day, stabbing his finger on the notebook.
Mainstream parties insist they won't join a government under a prime minister facing criminal charges. It's a weak field, and still unlikely to keep ANO out of power, but the margin of the party's win could be dented by the charges, to allow mainstream parties to temper Babis' more authoritarian instincts.
The Social Democratic Party (CSSD) — leader of the current coalition that features ANO and the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) — is vying with the communist KSCM for second place on just 13 percent or so, despite a booming economy and the lowest unemployment in the EU.
Babis has carefully left the option of an ANO minority government with support from the KSCM or far-right SPD on the table, should he win big.
"That could represent quite a threat to Czech democratic institutions," claims Martin Ehl, foreign editor at liberal broadsheet Hospodarske noviny.
'No democrat at heart'
Babis' declaration that he wants to run the country like his business inspires support amongst those seeking simple solutions. Noting comparisons with Donald Trump or former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, critics worry he could undermine the institutional strength that has helped the Czech Republic outperform Central European peers.
There is also concern the billionaire will push the country in the direction of the "illiberal axis" of Hungary and Poland.
ANO's communications chief Lucie Kubovicova dismisses the suggestion. "Andrej Babis is not a threat to democracy," she insists. "The things happening in Poland will not happen here if he is prime minister."
Analyst Jiri Pehe agrees, to some extent. "He's no democrat at heart, but it's a question if Babis is a threat to the system," he says. However, what worries many, he adds, is that Babis is a "pure pragmatist that will do whatever is in his own short-term interest."
The billionaire is playing on such concern. With a backroom deal with the controversial president, Milos Zeman, already in the bag, the ANO leader's refusal to rule out cooperation with the communists or far-right appears a ploy to persuade mainstream parties to play ball in order to 'save democracy.'
"I wouldn't trust the mainstream parties to stick to their word not to enter a coalition with ANO," says Tomas Prouza, who spent three years working in the government alongside the former finance minister as CSSD-appointed state secretary for European affairs. "They will claim it is better than allowing the communists into power."
"Everybody says they will not go with us," says Babis. "I don't care. The voters will decide."
Lukewarm EU members
While many would howl with disapproval, mainstream coalition partners could restrain Babis' more authoritarian and populist instincts, Ehl suggests. The likes of the CSSD and KDU-CSL would encourage a course toward the core of the "multispeed" EU currently under discussion and strive to push away from Hungary and Poland.
"EU officials would certainly be far happier dealing with the CSSD guys than Babis," says Filip Nerad, Brussels correspondent for state-run Czech Radio.
Polls show the Czechs are amongst the least enthusiastic EU members and fiercely opposed to euro adoption and migrant quotas. Babis has not been shy in blasting Brussels on these topics, but in reality he's likely to favor warm relations, if for no other reason than that Agrofert benefits hugely from EU subsidies and controls companies across Europe.
ANO's election program says the party will strive to reform a bloc in which membership is the Czech Republic's "priority interest." Relations with France and Germany will come ahead of those with Visegrad Group partners, the manifesto hints.
"I am not speaking at all about a Czexit," the billionaire says. "The Czech Republic must put forward proposals on how to reform the EU."