Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s populist party loses power in close election

Andrej Babiš’s ANO party was overtaken by the narrowest margins of the two opposition coalitions trying to overthrow him, according to the Czech Statistical Office.

With 100% of the votes counted, the center-right alliance Spolu (Ensemble) won the most votes with 27.79% of the vote, followed by Babiš’s ANO party with 27.12%, and the centrist coalition PirStan with 15.62%, according to a count of votes on the website of the statistical office.

While Babiš ANO’s party won the most votes of all parties, it does not have a clear path to a majority after Saturday’s vote.

“We are the change. You are the change,” Spolu coalition leader Petr Fiala said on Saturday, winning in front of a cheering crowd.

PirStan coalition leader Ivan Bartoš said talks with Spolu “on the possibilities of forming a new government” would likely start on Saturday.

“Andrej Babiš’s rule is over, and the Democratic parties have shown that the era of chaos is likely to be behind us,” Bartoš said.

After winning a total of 108 seats in the 200-seat lower house on Saturday, talks between the two coalitions campaigning against Babiš ended with the signing of a memorandum by the leaders of the five parties of the combined coalitions to form together the next government.

The memorandum was a challenge to President Miloš Zeman who said before the elections that he would choose the one-party leader with the most votes, and not a coalition, to form the next government.

Addressing a press conference in Prague, Fiala said that “what is fundamental is that according to the Constitution of the Czech Republic, the government must have a majority in the lower house”.

“Hopefully everyone will respect constitutional customs, the will of the voters, and soon come to the conclusion that those with the majority of votes and the will to form a government will have a chance to create it,” Fiala added. .

A new government would alienate the Czech Republic from the populist parties of Hungary and Poland, which are increasingly criticized for undermining the democratic values ​​of the European Union.

The only other party to win seats, the far-right anti-immigration SPD, secured 9.58% of the vote towards the end of the vote count, while the Social Democrats – who are part of the current governing coalition – retained 4.66% of votes during the same period.

If the results are maintained, it would mean that for the first time since the end of the one-party regime during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia of 1989 and the subsequent split with Slovakia in 1993, members of the successor of the Communist Party would not be represented in the Czech parliament. .

During the election, Babiš, once dubbed the “Czech Trump” by some local media because of his vast business empire and populist leanings, campaigned heavily on an anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic platform.

The 67-year-old business mogul also faced challenges from opposition parties over his financial transactions, which they said represented a conflict of interest.

Pandora’s box of scandals

The close election also comes just days after a Pandora Papers investigation into controversial financial deals carried out by Babiš and other world leaders. The report claims that the Czech prime minister secretly moved $ 22 million through offshore companies to buy a domain on the French Riviera in 2009, before entering politics.

Responding on Twitter, Babiš wrote: “There is no way they can shoot me while I am in politics.

“I have never done anything illegal or wrong, but that does not prevent them from trying again to slander me and try to influence the Czech parliamentary elections,” he added.

A businessman worth around $ 3.4 billion, according to Bloomberg, Babiš has stood up against the elite since becoming prime minister in 2017, vowing to fight tax evasion.

But his post as prime minister has been dogged by long-standing allegations of financial impropriety.

In 2019, tens of thousands of Czechs took to the streets in some of the biggest protests since the 1989 revolution over Babiš’s financial affairs and other issues.
As the owner of the Agrofert conglomerate of food, chemical and media companies, Babiš was one of the richest tycoons in the Czech Republic. In 2017, he handed the company over to a trust, in accordance with the law, in order to retain his position as Minister of Finance. He became Prime Minister later that year.
But an audit by the European Commission later revealed that Babiš had violated conflict of interest rules regarding its control of trust funds linked to Agrofert.

Babiš rejected the findings, saying the audit had been “manipulated and artificially induced by professional snitches” from within the ranks of opposition parties.

CNN’s John Mastrini reported from Prague and Sheena McKenzie wrote from London. Ray Sanchez, Rob Iddiols, Vasco Cotovio and Ivana Kottasová contributed to this report

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