SAWT BEIRUT INTERNATIONAL

| 17 October 2021, Sunday |

Czech polls close as PM Babis seeks to cling to power

On Saturday, Czechs completed voting in a tight election in which Prime Minister Andrej Babis faced accusations of mismanaging the country, stoking fast-growing debt with freebies, and pursuing his own corporate interests while in power.

The billionaire, who denies all charges, and his populist ANO party were polling slightly ahead of the elections in the Central European country.

He is seeking re-election to a second term, claiming that the country needed stability and was doing better than previously.

The voting period closed at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT), and the results will be announced later on Saturday.

In his campaign, Babis promised to keep raising public sector wages and pensions, in the hopes of bolstering his popular support. He also ratcheted up his anti-migrant rhetoric and promised not to hand over authority to the EU.

However, he was up against a stiff challenge from the center-right. The progressive Pirates/Mayors group and the Together coalition have refused to deal with Babis because of what they claim are his untenable conflicts of interest relating to the corporate empire he built before entering politics.

ANO was unlikely to secure a majority but looked certain to win more votes than any single party, giving the premier the first shot at forming the next government.

His party may struggle to find partners, with two parties that backed the outgoing minority government at risk of losing their lower house seats. That could force ANO to seek an alliance with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party.

Babis’s big-spending policies, maintained despite a broad recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, mark a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. Debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the bloc, albeit from a low base.

Some voters said they were voting against this populism.

“I will vote for Spolu (Together) because I want a change,” said Jan Mrazek, a 39-year-old manager, before casting his vote in a northern Prague district.

“I don’t like how the government has been running, the disorganization during the pandemic and how they are piling up debt because they are just populists throwing money around.”

BATTLING BRUSSELS

The opposition has blamed Babis for chaotic policy changes during the peak of pandemic. More than 30,000 people have died from the virus, one of Europe’s worst per-capita death tolls.

Conflict of interest allegations, however, have been Babis’s main headache since entering government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning a 2017 election.

The 67-year-old, fifth on Forbes’ list of richest Czechs, put his Agrofert conglomerate of food, agriculture, chemical and media companies in trust funds in 2017 and has denied wrongdoing, saying he met legal obligations. But a European Commission audit determined there was a conflict of interest and it has stopped development grants to Agrofert.

New allegations surfaced last weekend that Babis used opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before entering politics. He denied the allegations contained in the “Pandora Papers” documenting hidden offshore finance, saying they are part of a campaign against him.

Babis has accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of selling out the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro.

He has also criticized Together’s leading party, the Civic Democrats, for failed policies when they led the country a decade ago.