Europe’s year of political upheaval isn’t over. In the Czech republic, a charismatic, controversial billionaire dubbed the ‘Czech Berlusconi’ – and more recently the ‘Czech Trump’ – is poised to take power.
Hot on the heels of Austria’s hard shift to the right, this weekend’s legislative election in the Czech Republic could be another shock to the EU which is still digesting the results in France and Germany, not to mention Brexit.
In his 2017 book What I Dream About When I Happen to be Sleeping, Andrej Babis set out an agenda that would transform, and some claim destroy Czech democracy.
He wants to abolish institutional checks and balances such as the Senate and regional government, he wants to ditch proportional representation and have the country vote first-past-the-post.
While he doesn’t oppose the European Union, he has denounced EU-imposed migrant quotes and other “EU meddling”, and favours an end to sanctions against Russia.
He admires the kind of centralised power enjoyed by Hungary’s Orban, and he dislikes journalists (except the ones he employs).
He said he wants to run the country “like a family firm”.
And the people love it – or at least some do. According to the polls, Babis’ ANO party will get close to 30 per cent of the vote, while none of the seven other parties likely to get into parliament would top 15 per cent.
Those other parties include far-right populist Tomio Okamura’s Freedom and Direct Democracy, an increasingly popular group with an anti-Roma, anti-Islamic message.
Andrej Babis is the second richest person in the Czech republic, a local financial paper calculated. His agriculture and media empire is worth 88 billion crowns ($5 billion) – and his worth had doubled in the four years he’s been in politics.
But he paints himself as the foe of the elite.
“Babis is a populist,” Sean Hanley, senior lecturer in East European politics at University College London, wrote this week.
“His folksy self-presentation as the plain-spoken practical businessman finally disgusted by corruption??? taking on a decrepit and corrupt party establishment who have failed ordinary people since 1989, is textbook stuff”.
Emily Mansfield, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit says Babis is likely to lead coalition-building talks after the election as head of the biggest party.
But a number of controversies are swirling around him, Mansfield says. Earlier this year he was forced to place his business interests in a blind trust.
Babis was finance minister and deputy prime minister in the coalition government until May, when he was dismissed due to allegations he had avoided paying tax as CEO of Agrofert in 2012.
Since then his legal woes have deepened. Earlier this month he was charged with fraud over the use of ???2.3 million in European subsidies in the construction of his Stork Nest Farm ten years ago.
And a court case in Slovakia has reopened over his possible collaboration with the former communist secret police (though a court previously ruled there was no proof of the collaboration, and Babis denies it).
But mud just doesn’t seem to stick to him.
“He’s very charismatic,” Mansfield says. “He’s a big character with a very big public profile. The ANO movement doesn’t have much ideological basis to it, it’s very much based around Babis’ personality and his leadership.
“He’s been described as the Czech Trump, but he’ s not the kind of nationalist ideologue, he’s very much a pragmatic businessman, he’s not a nationalist or far-right leader.
“He says he wants to clear out corruption??? he’s much more technocratic and pro-business. You could perhaps compare him to (France’s Emmanuel) Macron – a charismatic anti-establishment person coming into the political scene and pretty much exploding it.”
It was primed for such an explosion. Though the Czech economy has been ticking along nicely (it has the lowest unemployment in the EU), the Social Democrats, for most of two decades the country’s biggest party, have a reputation for low-level rent-seeking.
“People have got worn down by the impression that politicians are always acting in their own interest, with business interests in the background,” says Mansfield. “Babis came in and said ‘I’m too rich to steal’. That’s attractive.”
Miroslav Mares, professor of political science at Masaryk University in Brno, says Babis is a symptom of the dissatisfaction with political development in the post-Communist country.
“This is irrational dissatisfaction, the people??? have better expectations,” he says. “Salaries are not as high as in Germany or Austria, for example. People compare themselves with these countries, they don’t compare themselves to the worse situation in other eastern European countries such as Hungary or Slovakia.
“(Babis) promises that he is able to stop the corrupt system, and people believe they will then receive more money from the system.”
Professor Mares says Babis has retained support despite his legal problems because he has presented them as a conspiracy against him.
“His supporters feel they should fight for their leader,” Professor Mares says. “On the other hand you can see lower support than one or two months ago.”
Babis is likely to be in the best position after the weekend to lead a coalition government.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t like coalitions. The necessary negotiations and compromises are neither his business nor political style, local financial paper Hospodarske Noviny wrote.
And some potential coalition partners may demand that Babis should not lead a government they join, due to the scandals hanging over him.
But whether Babis ends up prime minister or elsewhere in government, this election is likely to see another big change in Europe’s halls of power.