Billionaire Carves Up Czech Politics by Shunning Extremists

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The Czech billionaire whose upstart party shook up the establishment four years ago now wants to realign the political middle ground on his own terms.

Andrej Babis, who’s almost certain to become the Czech Republic’s prime minister after next month’s elections, said he wouldn’t partner with parties on either extreme of the political spectrum. It’s less obvious for Babis, however, where his ANO party will find its natural allies.

“Common sense and problem-solving” is how Babis, 63, defines his agenda. “I don’t know, maybe we will be in the opposition,” he said in an interview in Prague this week.

Andrej Babis on Sept. 26.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

The second-richest Czech is taking a different tack from other leaders in Europe, who’ve at times sought compromise with political outliers. In Sweden, the biggest opposition party opened itself up to cooperation with an anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi roots. The junior coalition partner in Bulgaria is a loose alliance of nationalist parties.

Babis, himself no stranger to anti-immigration rhetoric, said ANO, the overwhelming favorite to win elections on Oct. 20-21, won’t accept the Communists or the anti-immigration Freedom and Direct Democracy party -- known by its Czech acronym SPD -- as a coalition partner. The latest poll published Friday shows the two parties garnering almost a fifth of the vote, with the Communists finishing third and SPD clearing the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.

SPD’s leader, Tokyo-born lawmaker Tomio Okamura, has urged voters to harass Muslims by walking dogs and pigs by mosques and to stop buying kebabs because they fund Islamic movements. The virulent campaign has made inroads in the European Union member of 10.6 million, despite the country having a tiny Muslim community.

The Communists have never officially renounced the crimes of the Soviet-dominated Czechoslovak regime and want the country to leave the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Merkel, Macron

Meanwhile, Babis is looking to protect his political flanks and bend the mainstream to his liking after rising to popularity among Czechs by channeling anti-EU sentiment. 

Blaming German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for terrorism, he’s denounced a shared system of quotas for a redistribution of migrants already in the EU, and advocated using NATO forces to sink people smugglers’ ships off the North African coast. Babis has also rejected French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for faster EU integration and said he doesn’t want the Czech Republic to adopt the euro.

While calling the Social Democrats corrupt and fiscally irresponsible, Babis stopped short of rejecting future cooperation. ANO has already been part of the coalition with the left-of-center party, and despite their differences, the ruling alliance is set to be the first since 2002 to survive a full four-year term.

‘About the People’

“It’s about the people” on the other side of the political divide, Babis said when asked if he could imagine forming a coalition with the Social Democrats again. As examples of Social Democrat politicians with whom he could “have good chemistry, go for dinner, discuss, form a team,” Babis named parliament Speaker Jan Hamacek and Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek.

Babis has often criticized his coalition partners as lazy and incompetent. Similarly to U.S. President Donald Trump, he wants to run the state like a business. Babis also said he would like to change the country’s electoral system from proportional to majority representation, reduce the number of ministers in the government and simplify parliamentary procedures to expedite the adoption of laws.

Uneasy to start with, the current government coalition of ANO, the Social Democrats and the junior Christian Democratic party has gradually devolved into outright hostility between Babis and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who teamed up with the opposition to pass a law that forced the tycoon to put his assets into a trust fund. 

The premier eventually fired Babis as finance minister and convinced lawmakers to strip him of parliamentary immunity that was shielding him from a criminal probe into the alleged misuse of EU funds.

The perceived conflict of interest and the fraud investigation haven’t put a dent in the billionaire’s popularity. The most recent opinion poll shows ANO enjoys the support of 31 percent of decided voters, more than double the backing of its nearest challenger, the Social Democrats.

Under Sobotka’s leadership, the ruling party has been steadily losing support despite a generous boost to pensions and increases in the minimum wage and public-sector salaries.

Babis admitted that he, too, wants to keep up increases in pensions, which are a fraction of those in the EU’s wealthier west.

“Of course we have to take care of old people,” Babis said.

— With assistance by Paul Abelsky, John Micklethwait, Peter Laca, and Michael Winfrey

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