Populist billionaire's party wins big in Czech Republic
PRAGUE (AP) — The centrist ANO movement led by populist Andrej Babis decisively won the Czech Republic's parliamentary election Saturday in a vote that shifted the country to the right and paved the way for the euroskeptic billionaire to become its next prime minister.
With all votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said ANO won in a landslide, capturing 29.6 percent of the vote, or 78 of the 200 seats in the lower house of Parliament. "It's a huge success," the 63-year-old Babis told supporters and journalists at his headquarters in Prague.
Babis is the county's second-richest man, with a media empire including two major newspapers and a popular radio station. Although he was a finance minister in the outgoing government until May, many Czechs see him as a maverick outsider with the business acumen to shake up the system. With slogans claiming he can easily fix the country's problems, he is, for some, the Czech answer to U.S. President Donald Trump.
Since the leader of the strongest party usually gets to form a new government, Babis could be the country's next leader despite being linked to several scandals — including being charged by police with fraud linked to European Union subsidies.
The charges will likely make it difficult for Babis to find the coalition partners he needs to build a parliamentary majority. He didn't immediately say which parties he preferred but has invited all parties that won seats in parliament for talks.
In a blow to the country's political elite, four of the top five vote-getting parties Saturday had challenged the traditional political mainstream. Some have exploited fears of immigration and Islam and have been attacking the country's memberships in the EU and NATO.
The opposition conservative Civic Democrats came in a distant second Saturday with 11.3 percent of the vote, or 25 seats. They were the strongest mainstream party. The Social Democrats, the senior party in the outgoing government, captured only 7.3 percent — 15 seats — while the Christian Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, won only 5.8 percent support or 10 seats.
"It's a voting hurricane," analyst Michal Klima told the Czech television, referring to the poor results for the mainstream parties. The Pirate Party won seats for the first time, coming in third with 10.8 percent of the vote, while the most radical anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU party, the Freedom and Direct Democracy, was in fourth place with 10.6 percent support. The two parties won 22 seats each.
Babis' centrist movement stormed Czech politics four years ago, finishing a surprising second with an anti-corruption message. Babis has also been critical of the EU and opposes setting a date for when his country would adopt the shared euro currency.
Like most Czech parties, ANO also rejects accepting refugees under the EU's quota system. But Babis played down his euroskeptic views after his victory. "We're oriented on Europe," he said. "We're not a threat for democracy. I'm ready to fight for our interests in Brussels. We're a firm part of the European Union. We're a firm part of NATO."
Still, some experts saw a strong shift to the right for the Czech Republic if Babis works out a coalition government with Tomio Okamura, head of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, who wants to ban Islam and organize a referendum to exit the EU.
"Should (Babis) join forces with Okamura, the Czech Republic would be facing difficult times," Klima said. A record nine parties and groupings made it into Parliament. Those included the Communists, who got 7.8 percent of the vote and 15 seats, the pro-EU conservatives with 5.3 percent and seven seats and a group of mayors who won 5.2 percent support and six seats.