Czech Ruling Party Vows Revamp After Regional Election Defeat

  • Social Democrats need new program goals to attract voters
  • President Zeman praises billionaire Babis for election win

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka vowed to revamp his party’s agenda in a fight to regain support after it suffered a crushing regional election defeat by its coalition partner, billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis’s ANO party.

With a year to go before general elections in the country of 10.5 million tucked between Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia, ANO won the most votes in nine out of 13 regions. It eclipsed Sobotka’s Social Democrats, who finished first in two. The Christian Democrats, also a member of the three-party ruling coalition, and an opposition alliance of local mayors won one region each.

While regional governments have limited relevance for the central government in Prague, the vote is a blow for the Social Democrats, who were defending leadership posts in 11 regions after dominating local elections four years ago. While Sobotka has championed boosting pensions and wages, Babis, the Czech Republic’s second-richest person, has campaigned on improving the management of state finances and rooting out corruption.

“We have very strong competitor in ANO, which is benefiting from the fact that it’s a member of a successful government, and, at the same time, it’s acting as if it were in opposition,” Sobotka said in an interview broadcast on the Seznam.cz website on Sunday. “We have to look at themes like environmental protection, culture, the digital economy -- the virtual space in general, as that’s where the young generation is. This is where I see some shift in priorities.”

For the story on turbulent coalition relations, click here.

While they’ve enjoyed success as coalition partners, Babis and Sobotka are also rivals and disagree over the state’s role in the economy. Their ruling alliance has been shaken by infighting over issues including conflict-of-interest rules, spending on public wages and pensions, and the leadership of the organized-crime police. Despite the turbulent relations, the two leaders have reversed an austerity drive imposed by the previous administration, fueling a recovery from a recession and fostering a record budget surplus this year.

ANO leads opinion polls with about a year to go before general elections, and Babis is the most popular party leader. He owns assets in chemical and food industries as well as the largest mainstream newspaper. A former Communist-era trade official with a fortune of at least $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Babis has fought off conflict-of-interest allegations since joining politics. He says he isn’t running his empire, which includes 250 companies and employs 34,000 people in 18 countries.

President Milos Zeman, a former Social-Democrat chairman who has repeatedly backed Babis in the mogul’s clashes with Sobotka, congratulated him for the election success and said the result was an indication of the political landscape before the general ballot.

“I think he deserves it also for his work as finance minister,” Zeman said in a video interview with news website Blesk.cz

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