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Babis with newly elected Austrian chancellor Kurz; Milos Zeman

Czech election outcome may be fresh challenge to EU establishment

ANO, the Czech party led by a billionaire, is the clear favourite in a general election taking place this weekend where traditional parties most likely will face an uphill battle.

Published: October 18, 2017, 8:14 am

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    The Czech Republic, which joined the EU in 2004 and has a population of 10.6 million, will be voting on October 20 and 21.

    Andrej Babis’ ANO movement is looking strong. The 63-year-old, Slovak-born tycoon and Agrofert conglomerate chief, was ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic’s second wealthiest citizen.

    ANO means “yes” in Czech, but it is also an acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, with an effective slogan: “Things will improve”.

    Czech political parties have been “tarnished by corruption scandals,” Charles University analyst, Josef Mlejnek, told AFP. To illustrate Mlejnek’s remark, a recent poll by the Czech Academy of Sciences, showed that ANO was scoring higher in current polls than the two traditional heavyweights in Czech politics – the Social Democrat CSSD and the right-wing ODS – combined.

    “He offers the voters a populist alternative by presenting himself as someone capable of managing the state because he has already successfully managed his conglomerate,” Mlejnek explained.

    Babis has suggested abolishing the Czech Senate and cutting down the lower house of Parliament, moves that would strengthen the executive branch. He also opposes sanctions on Russia and is fiercely resistant to accepting Muslim migrants.

    Babis’s movement, formed in 2012, stunned the establishment by coming second in parliamentary elections the following year. Because of his strong finish, Babis served as finance minister in the coalition government with the center-left Social Democratic Party and the center-right Christian Democratic Union.

    Tomio Okamura’s Liberty and Direct Democracy Party also opposes immigration, calling Islam an ideology rather than a religion. The party finished with 6.9 percent in the last election and is expected to do well this time too. Even inside pro-European parties like the Social Democrats, regional politicians share Okamura’s proposed policies on immigration.

    “I say we must make the Czech Republic good,” Okamura told The New York Times, alluding to Donald Trump’s election slogan which Babis has used, but he added: “Not great. I wanted to choose a word that Trump had not chosen. But of course, great would be fine.”

    Babis has since been investigated over alleged tax crimes. His parliamentary immunity was revoked and he was fired as finance minister. This month he was indicted on charges of misusing European Union subsidies — accusations that he has brushed off as politically motivated.

    “The other parties are trying to push Babis out of politics, but it hasn’t worked,” Pavel Fischer said. Fischer is the director of Stem, a nonprofit polling and research group in Prague.

    President Milos Zeman has said that if ANO wins, he will name Babis prime minister, even if Babis is in prison. But Babis owns or controls the two most popular newspapers, as well as a popular radio station and a television network.

    So far, his popularity has only increased a a result of the scandals.

    Anti-system parties vying for seats in the 200-member parliament include the Communists, who scored 11.1 percent in the Academy poll as well as the Pirate party. The Pirates leader, dreadlocked IT expert Ivan Bartos, polled 6.4 percent, higher than the Christian Democrats with 6.2 percent.

    The Czech economy has been doing well in recent years. Unemployment is at only 3.8 percent and economic growth is expected to pick up to 3.1 percent this year after 2.6 percent in 2016, according to the finance ministry.

    Three months after the general election, Czechs will vote for a new president in the second-ever direct presidential election. Outspoken current president Milos Zeman has said Europeans should “have the courage to invest in our own guns” in order to guard against international terrorism.

    The veteran of the Prague Spring as well as the Velvet Revolution, spoke to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “The level of international crime is growing because of Islamic terrorism,” he said.

    “I am open and frank, and I do not use the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ lightly but, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it has Islamic origin. It is connected with genocide in Armenia.” President Zeman added: “What can we do against international criminality? Invest in the police, invest in the army, and have the courage to invest in our own guns.

    “My wife has a pistol. Of course, she passed all necessary tests, but now I am guarded by my wife, and not only by bodyguards,” he joked.

    Czech citizens are afforded some of the most liberal gun rights in Europe, almost on par with Switzerland, and both countries enjoy a much lower homicide rate than the United Kingdom.

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