Czech Businessman Kingmaker After Election

Andrej Babiš appeals to disgruntled rightwingers but could lose their trust if he supports the Social Democrats.

Czech businessman and politician Andrej Babiš delivers a speech to members of his party, March 2
Czech businessman and politician Andrej Babiš delivers a speech to members of his party, March 2 (ANO)

The Czech Republic’s second richest man, Andrej Babiš, emerged as the Central European country’s political kingmaker after an election on Friday that decimated the former conservative ruling parties.

Babiš, an agricultural tycoon who was born in what is now Slovakia, is politically close to former prime minister Petr Nečas’ Christian Democrats and drew many disgruntled rightwingers to his cause, winning almost 19 percent support and placing second in the election just after the Social Democrats.

Nečas resigned in June after prosecutors had charged his chief of staff with bribery and illegally ordering military intelligence agents to conduct surveillance operations.

The Christian Democrats and former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg’s libertarians tried to form a new government but were overruled by President Miloš Zeman, a former Social Democrat leader, who called new elections.

The Christian Democrats lost more than half of their votes compared to the last election while Schwarzenberg’s party fell almost 5 points.

Tired of a long string of graft scandals, many Czech voters sympathize with Babiš, a man who earned his money from business rather than shady public tenders. Yet an alliance with the Social Democrats, who are reluctant to form a coalition with the unreformed Communists, who came in third, could disappoint voters of both parties.

In opposition, the Social Democrats criticized public-sector spending cuts while conservative voters were appalled by tax increases. Both were pursued to keep the Czech Republic’s budget shortfall under the 3 percent European fiscal treaty limit.

The Czech economy has been in recession since 2011. More austerity measures are needed if the country is to respect the bloc’s budget rules and eventually enter the eurozone, something Nečas and Schwarzenberg resisted and many of Babiš’ voters are presumably wary of as well.

The Social Democrats favor joining the currency union and have promised to raise bank and income taxes as well as utility levies to avoid further cuts in welfare. Neither is likely to sit well with what is now Babiš’ base.

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