Scandal-tainted Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis favorite in Czech vote

PRAGUE (AP) – Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ centrist party narrowly lost the parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic on Saturday, a startling development that could spell the end of the ruling populist billionaire’s reign.

The two-day election to fill 200 seats in the lower house of the Czech Republic’s parliament came shortly after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported details of Babis’ financial transactions abroad in a project dubbed the “Pandora Papers”. Babis, 67, denied any wrongdoing.

With all votes counted, the Czech Statistical Office said Ensemble, a liberal-conservative tripartite coalition, won 27.8% of the vote, beating Babis’ ANO (Yes) party, which won 27.1 %. In a second blow to the populists, another liberal center-left coalition of the Pirate Party and STAN, a group of mayors, won 15.6% of the vote to finish third, the statistics office reported.

“The two democratic coalitions have obtained the majority and have a chance to form a majority government,” said Petr Fiala, the Ensemble leader and his candidate for prime minister.

The winning coalition won 71 seats while its partner took 37 seats for a comfortable majority of 108 seats. Babis won 72 seats, six fewer than in the 2017 elections.

The five opposition parties, which have policies closer to the mainstream of the European Union compared to the populist Babis, put aside their differences in this election to create the two coalitions, seeking to oust the Eurosceptic prime minister power.

Also on Saturday evening, the two coalitions announced that they had signed a memorandum of their will to govern together.

The result means “an absolute change in politics in the Czech Republic,” analyst Michal Klima said on Czech public television. “This stabilizes the country’s position in the western camp.

“It’s a huge defeat for (Babis),” he added.

The anti-migrant and anti-Muslim force in the Czech Republic, the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which wants the country to leave the EU, finished fourth with 9.6% support, or 20 seats, or less than the 22 seats won in 2017.

Before the vote, Babis led a minority coalition government of the ANO and the Social Democrats in the Eastern European country of 10.7 million people, which is both a member of the Union European Union and NATO. He also ruled with the support of the Maverick Communists.

But both the Social Democrats and the Communists, the country’s traditional parliamentary parties, failed to win seats in parliament on Saturday for the first time since Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

Babis had a turbulent tenure with many scandals. Among them, police recommended that he be charged with alleged fraud involving EU grants, and a recently released EU report concluded that Babis had a conflict of interest over the bloc’s grants involving his former business empire.

The “Pandora Papers” report which presented details of the number of the richest and most powerful people in the world who allegedly hid their wealth from tax collectors claimed that Babis had invested $ 22 million in shell companies to buy 16 properties in the south of France.

The French properties were not disclosed in the prime minister’s required asset declarations, according to documents obtained by the Czech partner of the journalism group. Babis claimed the report was aimed at harming him in the election.

Yet all the public polls before the vote favored his ANO party to win the election.

“We didn’t expect to lose,” said Babis, congratulating the winner. “We accept it.”

Still, he said the election results were “excellent”.

The leader of the stronger party usually has the opportunity to form a new government. President Milos Zeman, a close ally of Babis, did not immediately comment but previously indicated that he would first name the leader of the winning party, not the winning coalition, in an attempt to form a new government, which would be Babis . The two leaders will meet on Sunday.

“We are the strongest party,” Babis said. “If the president asks me to create a government, I will open negotiations on this.

However, any new government must win a parliamentary confidence vote to rule, and Babis and his potential partner, the Freedom Party, do not have enough support for that.

Babis declined to confirm his campaign claim that he would quit politics if he was in opposition.

Babis had wagered on an aggressive campaign, with migration a major topic even though his country is not a typical destination for migrants and refugees, a move that analysts say has divided the nation. He invited the European champion in the fight against immigration, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to attend a campaign rally. Babis also criticizes the European Union’s plan to tackle climate change, saying it would hurt the country’s economy.

Fiala, the leader of Ensemble, is committed to pursuing a different policy.

“It doesn’t matter who you voted for,” he said after the results were announced. “We are all Czech citizens who have to live together as neighbors, friends and colleagues. This is what unites us all.

The Liberal-Conservative Ensemble is made up of the Civic Democratic Party, the Christian Democrats and the TOP 09 party. The Pirate Party and STAN, the grouping of mayors and independent candidates, formed the other coalition.

Despite their differences on many issues, including climate change, same-sex marriage and the adoption of the euro, opposition parties all support EU and NATO membership.

The creation of a five-party coalition “will be painful and will require many concessions on both sides. It should be based on what they are able to agree on, ”said Petr Just, analyst at Metropolitan University of Prague.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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