(C) Reuters. Czech Prime Minister and leader of ANO party, Andrej Babis, looks on ahead of casting his vote in parliamentary elections in Lovosice, Czech Republic October 8, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
By Jason Hovet and Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s populist ANO party appeared headed for an election win on Saturday, according to partial results and projections, but it was unclear if the billionaire leader would be able to put together a majority in parliament.
Babis is seeking a second four-year term while battling criticism that he mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic, stoked fast-rising debt with handouts and tended to his own business interests in office. Babis denies all the accusations against him.
Voting took place on Friday and up to mid-day on Saturday. CNN Prima News projected soon after that ANO would win the election with 27.8% of the vote, followed by the two opposition coalitions that have pledged to work together to oust ANO: the centre-right Together coalition on 26.4% and the liberal Pirates/Majors group with 15.0%.
Results from 43% of districts counted so far showed ANO at 29.9%, with Together on 24.2% and the Pirates/Mayors group with 13.8%.
Babis, 67, promised in his campaign to continue raising public sector wages and pensions, hoping to shore up the basis of his popular support. He also stepped up his anti-migrant rhetoric and pledged to avoid ceding powers to the European Union.
The early results tend to come from smaller, countryside districts that have in the past voted more in favour of ANO than voters in cities.
The overall balance between the two opposition blocs and ANO with potential partners – and thus the shape of the future government – may be tipped by the results of two small parties that were on the verge of the 5% threshold needed to win seats.
The two main opposition coalitions refuse to work with Babis over what they say are his unacceptable conflicts of interest related to the business empire he created before entering politics.
ANO looked certain to win more votes than any single party, and President Milos Zeman has said this is what would determine who gets the first shot at forming the next government.
If ANO’s current partners fail to win enough or any seats, as the partial results showed, ANO may be short of allies and may have to turn to the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party in order to secure a lower house majority.
Babis’s big-spending policies, maintained despite a broad recovery from the pandemic, mark a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. Debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the EU, albeit from a low base.
Some voters said they were voting against this populism.
“I will vote for Spolu (Together) because I want a change,” said Jan Mrazek, a 39-year-old manager, before casting his vote in a northern Prague district.
“I don’t like how the government has been running, the disorganisation during the pandemic and how they are piling up debt because they are just populists throwing money around.”
The opposition has blamed Babis for chaotic policy changes during the peak of the pandemic. More than 30,000 people have died from the virus, one of Europe’s highest death tolls in terms of the size of the population.
Conflict of interest allegations, however, have been Babis’s main headache since entering government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning a 2017 election.
Babis, one of the richest people in the country, put his Agrofert conglomerate of food, agriculture, chemical and media companies in trust funds in 2017 and has denied wrongdoing, saying he met legal obligations. But a European Commission audit determined there was a conflict of interest and it has stopped development grants to Agrofert.
New allegations surfaced last weekend that Babis used opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before entering politics. He denied the allegations contained in the “Pandora (OTC:PANDY) Papers” documenting hidden offshore finance, saying they are part of a campaign against him.
Babis has accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of selling out the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro, and blamed the Together parties for widespread corruption under their rule a decade ago.