Czech Would-Be Prime Minister Clears First Hurdle in Parliament

Czech prime minister aspirant Andrej Babis cleared his first hurdle in parliament after winning last month’s elections by securing the assembly’s speaker post for his euroskeptic ANO party with the backing of anti-establishment lawmakers.

After dominating the October vote but ending up without a majority, Babis, the Czech Republic’s second-richest person, had secured verbal support from the anti-Muslim SPD party, the Communists and the Pirates to elect ANO lawmaker Radek Vondracek as parliamentary chairman. In a secret ballot, Vondracek was elected with 135 of parliament’s 200 seats. The outcome gives Babis a key post in the cabinet-building process and the strongest voice in managing the legislature.

Andrej Babis, Oct. 23.

Photographer: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Mainstream parties rejected Vondracek and spurned Babis’s offer to join ANO in a ruling coalition, vowing to oppose him in a confidence vote and setting the stage for weeks of political wrangling. While Babis rejects comparisons to Donald Trump and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, he has portrayed himself as a departure from the parties that have run the country since the fall of the Iron Curtain and pledges to run the country of 10.6 million people like a business.

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

Babis’s first parliamentary victory relied on parties that he’s refused to work with in a formal ruling coalition, an approach also taken by other mainstream parties who have warned against rising extremism following gains by other anti-establishment forces across Europe.

They include the Communists, who are the descendants of the totalitarian party that ruled the country for 40 years. Another is the SPD, whose leader has called on Czechs to harass the tiny number of Muslims living in their country and to hold a Brexit-style referendum on exiting the European Union.

The next step for Babis is to present a proposed cabinet. He’s secured unconditional backing from President Milos Zeman, who’s seeking re-election in January and shares Babis’s opposition to an EU plan to provide shelter to migrants -- a main point of Babis’s election campaign. By law, Zeman can bestow up to two consecutive mandates to prospective prime ministers and he’s vowed to give Babis both, if needed.

In the the debate before the vote, opposition parties warned that as the head of the assembly, Vondracek could give the party another chance to create a government if the first two attempts fail. The billionaire rejected such a scenario.

“Why are you saying there will be a third attempt? How do you know?” Babis asked lawmakers in his speech. “Maybe we will agree to dissolve” parliament, he said, adding that ANO didn’t want to rule without legislative approval.

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 from prosecution with his re-election to parliament. On Tuesday, police asked parliament to again strip Babis of his immunity and allow new charges.

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