Prague: An anti-establishment party founded by a billionaire oligarch overpowered the Czech Republic's long-standing, mainstream parties Saturday, making the blunt-talking, enigmatic tycoon almost certain to become prime minister in a coalition government.
ANO, the party formed by Andrej Babis, 63, had nearly 30 percent of the vote with 99 percent of ballots counted. The Social Democrats, who have been at the centre of Czech politics for a quarter-century and had finished first in the previous election, came in a distant sixth with just 7 percent. The Communists were fifth. And the Christian Democrats, another party that traces its roots to the country's founding, got less than 6 percent, perilously close to the cutoff to qualify for seats in Parliament.
ANO was not the only anti-establishment party to do well. The extreme right-wing Freedom & Direct Democracy, with 10.7 percent, doubled its proportion from the previous election. That was just a fraction of a percentage point behind the youth-oriented Czech Pirate Party, an anti-establishment movement from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
In the previous parliamentary election in 2013, Mr Babis stunned the political establishment by drawing the second highest number of votes, just one year after founding his party. That was enough to make ANO part of the ruling coalition with the Social Democrats and the smaller Christian Democrats, with Mr Babis its finance minister. He was able to maintain his anti-establishment credentials by focusing on corruption and economic reforms.
In recent months, as polls showed his rise to prime minister becoming likely, Mr Babis became the target of an investigation into possible tax crimes and was fired as finance minister. This month, he was indicted on what he called politically motivated charges of misusing European Union subsidies. Opponents called on him to step down as his party's candidate for prime minister. He refused.
"I am happy that Czech citizens did not believe the disinformation campaign against us and expressed their trust in us," Mr Babis said in his victory speech at ANO headquarters. "We are a democratic movement, we are a pro-European and pro-NATO party, and I do not understand why somebody labels us as threat to democracy."
Often compared to President Donald Trump, Mr Babis has mixed such nationalist themes as opposition to immigration with a promise to use his business skills to streamline government, reduce red tape and fight corruption. With mainstream parties in decline, as they have been in recent elections across Europe, Mr Babis' promise to upend the political establishment found a receptive audience.
"The image of politics is corrupt," said Otto Eibl, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno. "It is quite easy to offer an alternative. When you say, 'All those old politicians are bad and I will be good,' most people want to believe you."
Mr Babis drew wide support from older Czech voters, fed up with corruption scandals and unfulfilled promises, who were willing to overlook their candidate's own legal issues.
"His opponents are just trying to tarnish him, and people don't care about these political games," said Petr Sebor, 70, who was escorting his 91-year-old mother, Zdenka, to the polls Friday, the first of two days of voting.
What the ascent of Babis and ANO — which means "yes" in Czech and is also an acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens — will mean for the Czech Republic's relations with Brussels and Moscow remains unclear.
But there is concern he could join a nationalist bloc with Poland and Hungary and deepen the rift between the European Union and many of its eastern members. He has promised to protect Czechs from overreach by Brussels, but also to remain an active partner in the European Union. He has stressed that Prague needs to develop closer ties with all potential trading partners, including Russia.
The first indication of his direction will come when he announces which parties will become partners in the new coalition government.
Among the biggest surprises in the election was the strong showing by Freedom & Direct Democracy, the extreme right-wing party of Tomio Okamura, of mixed Czech and Japanese descent, who has lived in the Czech Republic since he was 6. Such right-wing parties, which have taken root elsewhere in Eastern Europe, had been largely inconsequential in Czech politics. But now, in a tight race for a distant second with the Civic Democrats, Mr Okamura will become a larger force.
Analysts had warned that the most recent polls may have understated Mr Okamura's base as some voters were reluctant to acknowledge support of the controversial party. Okamura attributed the discrepancy to inept polling.
Mr Okamura said he opposed the country's mainstream parties and political establishment because its message is "pro-Brussels, pro-multiculturalism and pro-Islam," while he sees Brussels as an adversary, Islam as an ideology rather than a religion and multiculturalism as a threat to Czech culture.
"We want to keep the Czech Republic we remember from our childhoods," he said in an interview earlier this month. "What is wrong with that?"
Mr Babis had said he would not ask either the Communists or Mr Okamura's party to join his coalition. Karla Slechtova, the minister of regional development and an ANO member, said the party would like to discuss a coalition with the Social Democrats, though they alone would not be sufficient.
"The elections have confirmed the downfall of traditional parties," said Milos Gregor, an analyst at the International Institute for Political Science. "With as many as nine parties in the government, we will most likely face a turbulent four years."
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