Populist Czech winner may find scandals scare away partners
By KAREL JANICEK
Oct. 23, 2017
PRAGUE (AP) — Billionaire businessman Andrej Babis was already the second-richest person in the Czech Republic — and now he's set to become the country's most powerful politician, despite fraud charges against him.
Some call Babis the "Czech Berlusconi," a reference to Italy's former billionaire premier Silvio Berlusconi. Others consider him a local version of U.S. President Donald Trump. He is known for his slogan "everybody steals" and his resolve to run the state like a company.
His populist ANO party scored a landslide victory in the Czech Republic's parliamentary election Saturday — part of the anti-establishment wave that's sweeping through Western democracies.
Not only did Babis' party almost double its number of seats — to 78 in the 200-seat lower house of Parliament — but four of the five top vote-getting parties Saturday are now populist or seeking radical change.
President Milos Zeman, his ally, told Babis on Monday that he will ask him next week to start talks on forming a coalition government — something that Babis might find hard to do.
"We'll do our utmost to persuade any other party to join us," Babis said Monday.
Babis' scandals have not harmed his popular support, but potential coalition partners might hesitate to join forces with someone who was charged by police earlier this month with fraud involving $2 million in European Union subsidies dating to 2008.
The case involves a farm that received an EU subsidy after its ownership was transferred from the Agrofert conglomerate that belonged to Babis to Babis' family members. The EU farm subsidy was meant for medium and small businesses. Babis said on Monday his wife Monika has also been charged.
EU authorities have been also investigating.
Babis denies the accusations, saying they were just aimed at hurting his campaign.
In other scandals, Babis was fired as finance minister earlier this year over unexplained business dealings, including not fully explaining suspicions that he avoided paying taxes.
This case prompted tens of thousands of Czechs to rally against Babis in Prague.
At the time, the lower house of Parliament approved a resolution alleging that Babis had "repeatedly lied" to the public and "misused his media" empire to damage his opponents.
Babis denied wrongdoing in that case as well.
In another notable case that goes back decades, Babis has failed so far to clear his name of accusations that he collaborated with the Czechoslovak communist-era secret police.
The Slovak-born Babis, who was a member of the Communist Party before the 1989 Velvet Revolution that brought democracy, denies any collaboration.
But Slovakia's Constitutional Court ruled in October to cancel previous verdicts that there was no proof for the allegation against Babis. Slovakia's Institute of the Nation's Memory, which holds parts of Babis' secret-police files, says they contain evidence that Babis was an agent under the name "Bures."
After the collapse of communism, Babis established his Agrofert in the middle of the turbulent 1990s, when the country split up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Some of his political opponents, including outgoing Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, say doubts have surfaced about how Babis obtained his wealth — which Forbes puts at $4.1 billion.
Among other scandals, Babis faced allegations that finance ministry officials have used their power to liquidate his business competitors.
Fearing of a combination of wealth and power, Parliament approved a law that forced Babis to transfer Agrofert, which includes some 250 companies together with two nationwide newspapers and a popular radio among them, to a trust fund.
Babis made his first impact on the Czech political scene in the 2013 election, finishing second after campaigning as an outsider to the country's corrupt system of mainstream politics.
Among his populist moves, he proposed lowering taxes on beer by more than half — something which resonates among the beer-loving Czechs.
Critics, however, don't trust him. A smartphone application called "Without Andrej" identifies products made by his agriculture, food and chemical factories so people can avoid buying his companies' products.
On an international level, Babis has been critical of the European Union, setting up potential future clashes.
Like many Czechs, he rejects the EU's quota system to redistribute refugees and opposes setting a date for the Czech Republic to adopt the common euro currency.
Babis is also opposed to EU sanctions against Russia for its actions against Ukraine and to the idea of further integration in the 28-nation bloc.