Populists set to thrash traditional parties in Czech vote

Andrej Babis is richer than US President Donald Trump, with a net worth of $4.1 billion (AFP Photo/MICHAL CIZEK)

Prague (AFP) - The Czech populist movement, ANO, led by a billionaire dubbed as the "Czech Trump", is the clear favourite in a general election on Friday and Saturday where the traditional parties are set to take a thrashing.

The Czech Republic, which joined the EU in 2004 and has a population of 10.6 million, goes to the polls on October 20 and 21.

And Andrej Babis' ANO movement looks positioned to emerge the clear winner.

In a recent poll by the Czech Academy of Sciences, the ANO scored 30.9 percent, more than the two traditional heavyweights in Czech politics -- the Social Democrat CSSD and the right-wing ODS -- combined, who scored just 13.1 percent and 9.1 percent respectively.

The ANO already held key posts in the current centre-left administration under Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka, including that of finance minister, occupied by Babis himself between January 2014 and May this year.

Dubbed by the media as either the "Czech Trump" or the "Czech Berlusconi", the 63-year-old, Slovak-born tycoon -- who ran the sprawling Agrofert conglomerate and was ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic's second wealthiest citizen -- was riding high on "strong voter aversion to political parties tarnished by corruption scandals," Charles University analyst, Josef Mlejnek, told AFP.

"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 said.

French political analyst Jacques Rupnik drew parallels to the rise of Donald Trump in the United States.

"Entrepreneurial populism is a problem ... we already have an entrepreneur in the White House," he said during a recent debate in Prague.

Babis has called for the EU to shut its borders to stop immigration and is opposed to the adoption of the euro -- sweet music to voters' ears in a country where euroscepticism is still strong.

- Fraud charges -

So far, Babis' popularity has remained unscathed by various scandals, including recent fraud charges over EU subsidies received by one of his companies.

Nevertheless, that affair "might turn out dangerous for him during post-election negotiations," said Mlejnek.

"ANO may win the election and end up in a government without Babis," the analyst said.

A newcomer to the Czech political scene, ANO finished second in the 2013 election with 18.65 percent, tailing the Social Democrats with 20.45 percent.

Anti-system parties vying for seats in the 200-member parliament this time round include the Communists, who scored 11.1 percent in the Academy poll.

The Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) of Tokyo-born entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, betting on strong anti-migrant rhetoric and plans to leave the EU, mustered 7.3-percent support.

- Dreadlocks -

"Even inside the basically pro-European parties like the Social Democrats, there are regional politicians who share some of Okamura's thoughts about immigration," said Mlejnek.

"There are almost no migrants here, the country is doing well economically, and still the people are disillusioned or even angry," he said.

Heavily dependent on car production and exports to the eurozone, the Czech economy has fared well in recent years.

Unemployment stood at just 3.8 percent in September 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.

Another anti-system party, the Pirates led by dreadlocked IT expert Ivan Bartos, scored 6.4 percent in the poll, beating the Christian Democrats with 6.2 percent.

Three months after the general election, Czechs will choose their new president in the second-ever direct presidential election.

Outspoken leftwinger Milos Zeman, a 73-year-old pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, anti-immigration Babis supporter, will compete for his second five-year term in that vote.

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