The Czech Republic entered uncharted territory on October 21 as the anti-establishment Ano party led by billionaire oligarch Andrej Babis scored a big win in the country’s general election, placing it short of a majority but with several options for forming a coalition government or running a minority government.
Ano, which took 29.6% of the vote, represents itself as a centrist party but it is actually a populist movement with strong eurosceptic and anti-migrant positions and the unofficial but patent backing of the Kremlin-friendly Czech President Milos Zeman. If he becomes prime minister—and Zeman has backed the idea that Babis can be made PM even though he has a fraud charge and an unresolved court challenge that seeks to confirm he was once a Communist secret police agent hanging over his head—Babis, sometimes compared to Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi ("Babisconi"), will be an unknown quantity.
Analysts are unsure exactly what policies 63-year-old Slovak-born Babis will pursue and whether he might back calls from Zeman—set to stand for a second term in January 2018—for a referendum on a ‘Czexit’ from the EU. Also very unclear is how close and coordinated he might be to the three other populist governments in the Visegrad Four quartet of Central Europe. That’s of particular relevance where Poland and Hungary are concerned given the authoritarianism and strong anti-EU feeling stirred by their administrations. Slovakia, however, has lately been seen as attempting to move closer to the core EU member nations.
Also of concern for the pro-EU, liberal parties in the Czech Republic is that although the traditional centre right Civic Democrats (ODS) managed to take second place in the election with 11.3%, while the transparency, digital-agenda-driven and young generation-oriented Pirate Party managed third place with 10.8%, the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD)—which wants to see Islam banned in the country and whose party leader has even gone so far as to tell people to walk pigs near mosques—was close behind in fourth with 10.6% and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) took fifth with 7.8%.
The Social Democrats (CSSD) who played the senior partner to Ano’s junior partner in the last government, suffered a shockingly dismal sixth place with 7.3%, confirming the precipitous decline of the party and establishment parties as a rule. And that was despite the Czech Republic currently enjoying exceptionally strong GDP growth, a balanced budget and record low unemployment.
For his part, Babis, in his victory speech at Ano's headquarters, immediately attempted to dispel fears that his party could represent an illiberal threat to democracy or start a campaign against EU membership. Babis—an agrochemicals and foodstuffs entrepreneur who has controversially built up extensive media holdings including the country's second best-selling newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes—who has previously insisted he will not ask the Communists or the SPD to join a coalition, declared: “I am happy that Czech citizens did not believe the disinformation campaign against us and expressed their trust in us... We are a democratic movement, we are a pro-European and pro-Nato party, and I do not understand why somebody labels us as threat to democracy.”
And it does appear that swathes of voters, determined to go with a movement that promises not to repeat the corruption the established parties have been guilty of since democracy came to the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, decided that the fraud charge and Communist agent allegations levelled at the mogul were conspiratorially devised by his opponents in a last-ditch bid to stop him from becoming prime minister and taking charge of the government.
The results, on a turnout of 60.8%, provide Babis, for instance, with the options of running a strong minority government (Ano will have 78 of the 200 MPs) with the possibly background-arranged support of the Communists (15) and SPD (22) or forming a coalition with one or two of various potential partners. Second-placed ODS (25), however, put out a statement as the final votes were being counted saying it would not take part in any government coalition with victorious ANO.
ANO said it intended to talk to all the parties that had made it into parliament about possible coalitions.
Forbes has estimated Babis's personal fortune at $4bn, making him the second richest person in the Czech Republic. He has built up a media business that includes 23 newspapers and magazines, 3 small TV stations and a national radio station, largest private radio station Radio Impuls. He has faced walkouts from journalists who refused to work for an owner who was also a politician. Babis has claimed he would never get involved in influencing content in his newspapers but earlier this year a leaked tape suggested he had discussed how to cover opponents with a journalist. The journalist was fired.
Babis's main holding is Agrofert, which in 1993 he set up as a fertiliser trader. It started out as the Czech unit of Slovakia's Petrimex, a state company Babis worked for since the 1970s. Nowadays it groups more than 250 firms and 34,000 employees. Agrofert's activities range over 18 countries, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany, with businesses involved in chemicals production and sales, farming, food processing, forestry and media.
The Hartenberg company owned by Babis includes a fertility clinics network plus biotech, real estate and foodstuffs investments.
The man almost certainly set to be the next Czech prime minister is also the owner of a restaurant on the French Riviera which boasts two Michelin stars.