Former Czech premier Andrej Babis has ended weeks of speculation by formally declaring his candidacy for the Czech presidency.
The news came as a surprise after the controversial populist billionaire had scattered hints in recent months that he would propose another member of his party to stand, as opinion polls showed that he would likely lose a run-off in the January election against the leading candidate, former General Petr Pavel.
The move may indicate that Babis plans to mount a populist campaign to exploit the ongoing cost of living crisis and resentment among some Czechs at the cost of sanctions on Russia.
Analysts point out that Babis has in reality been running a campaign for some time, using a camper van to tour the small towns and villages where he draws the most support to spread the message “Times were better under Babiš”. The agro-chemicals tycoon will also be able to benefit from his huge fortune, his ANO party vehicle and his media empire, including two national dailies, Mlada Fronts Dnes and Lidove Noviny.
Babiš depicted himself as being under pressure from the public to state his intentions, and from his electorate to run. “When I see how the government of the Czech Republic does not help the people in the country I have decided to do it,” said Babiš on commercial TV Nova on Sunday, and he later posted the video sequence on his Facebook page.
By the November 8 deadline all candidates have to present the signatures of 50,000 citizens nominating them, or 20 parliamentarians, or 10 senators. Babis' ANO party has 72 legislators in the Czech parliament, by far the most out of all parties, so Babiš easily meets the conditions.
Babis’s main rival will be retired Nato commander and former chief of the general staff Petr Pavel, who is ahead in the latest polls, and former Brno Mendel University President Danues Nerudova, whose teams have collected citizens’ signatures for the required quorum.
Current President Milos Zeman, who has been a close ally of Babis, is unable to stand after holding office for two terms.
The president has largely ceremonial powers, though he traditionally has a strong voice in foreign affairs. But if elected, Babis will be entitled to immunity in the ongoing trial in Prague where he is accused of a €2mn EU subsidy fraud. The Czech constitution clearly states that the “president of the republic cannot be detained or criminally prosecuted while in office”, said Tomas Grivna, head of the Charles University criminal law department in an interview with Seznam Zpravy, pointing out that further trial hearings are scheduled for next year.
“In democratic countries a prosecuted politician leaves, Andrej Babis seeks immunity at Prague Castle. The Czech Republic does not deserve this”, tweeted Prime Minister Petr Fiala, leader of the centre-right SPOLU bloc of parties which backs Pavel, Nerudova and senator Pavel Fischer in the presidential race.
After Babis’ announcement Nerudova took a stronger individual stand, tweeting that unlike Babis and Pavel who are busy explaining their Communist pasts to the public she is “ready to focus on the future of all of us”.
Both Babis and Pavel were former Communist party members and Babis has been documented to have worked with the feared Communist era secret service StB while holding lucrative posts in the Czechoslovak state's foreign trade organisations, though he continues to dismiss the evidence.
Pavel has in recent weeks been under fire from rightwing historian Petr Blazek who claims that Pavel is not being honest about his pre-1989 training in military intelligence. Blazek says his training was preparing him to be deployed as a spy in the West.
Pavel tweeted he sees Babis’s candidature as “a threat for the Czech Republic because of the populism he personifies".
Analysts point out that since the collapse of Communism in1989 Prague Castle has always been occupied by dominant political figures, including dissident playwright Vaclav Havel and former premiers Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman. With Andrej Babis formally entering the race, the campaign is now set to intensify and encompass the dominant themes in contemporary Czech politics, including the business and media influence Babis wields through his media empire.
Together with the Czech News Centre of billionaires Daniel Kretinsky and Patrik Tkac, Babis' Mafra is the largest publishing house in the country and like his fellow billionaires Babis also controls a number of lifestyle magazines and radio stations.