Czech Tycoon Faces Test in Parliament With Vote on Speaker

Updated on
  • Billionaire Babis pushes forward to create minority government
  • Anti-establishment parties pledge to back Babis’s speaker pick
Andrej Babis, Oct. 23. Photographer: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Billionaire Andrej Babis, whose euroskeptic ANO party won Czech elections last month, is heading into his first test in parliament with pledges of support from anti-establishment forces as he tries to create a minority government.

After dominating the October ballot but ending up without a majority, ANO has secured promises from the anti-Muslim SPD party, the Communists and the Pirates that they’ll back its nominee for parliamentary speaker, an important post in the cabinet-building process. The chamber called a recess of Monday’s inaugural session until Wednesday, when they’re scheduled to vote on the head of the assembly.

Mainstream parties have rejected the ANO candidate and spurned Babis’s offer to join him in a ruling coalition, vowing to vote against him in a confidence vote and setting the stage for weeks of political wrangling.

Andrej Babis, Oct. 23.

Photographer: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

As the second richest Czech, Babis rejects comparisons with Donald Trump and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi while also pledging to run the country of 10.6 million people like a business. Echoing the anti-establishment voices that have led to gains by populist forces across Europe, Babis has branded the traditional Czech parties that have rotated in power since the fall of Communism in 1989 as incompetent and corrupt. The resulting acrimony means he’s struggling to find ruling partners and is promising to pursue some of the goals for other parties to muster backing for his platform.

“Since Babis holds really strong cards, he’ll most likely in the end manage to muster confidence for a minority government, or find coalition partners,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague. “And even if he doesn’t, his fall-back option is early elections, in which case his party could be the only one that doesn’t have a problem with money.”

Read more about Babis’s post-election struggles a QuickTake Q&A

After criticizing the EU during the campaign over its policy of sheltering refugees, Babis has taken pains to present himself as a pro-European leader. While he opposes efforts for closer economic integration within the European Union, and is against euro adoption, he says the Czech Republic has no other alternative but membership.

Now, a month after the election, Babis is relying on fringe parties to push through his first act in parliament. They include the Communists, the descendants of the totalitarian party that ruled the country for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain, and the SPD, whose leader has called on Czechs to harass the tiny number of Muslims living in their country and to follow Britain out of the EU.

That’s raised concerns following gains by other anti-establishment forces across Europe including the anti-immigrant AfD in Germany and questions over whether the leaders of Hungary and Poland are upholding the bloc’s democratic values. Still, while Babis has secured pledges by the non-traditional parties to back Radek Vondracek to become the speaker of parliament, they haven’t promised to back the minority cabinet he’s assembling.

Presidential Backing

The tycoon isn’t under immediate pressure to muster a majority. He’s secured unconditional backing from President Milos Zeman, who’s seeking re-election in January and shares Babis’s opposition to sheltering migrants. By law, Zeman can bestow up to two consecutive mandates to prospective prime ministers and he’s vowed to give Babis both, if needed.

One of the main objections of other parties are conflict-of-interest accusations stemming from the chemical, food and media empire with which Babis made his $4 billion fortune. He was also the target of criminal fraud charges before he regained immunity to prosecution with his re-election to parliament.

Once the full cabinet is appointed, it will have 30 days to survive a confidence motion. Babis has said he wants to face a first vote by Christmas. Zeman will then have no formal deadline for granting the second mandate if the first proposed cabinet doesn’t win a confidence vote.

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