In Brief

Czech election: Trump-style billionaire leads presidential race

Europe risks swinging further to the right with election of anti-immigration tycoon Andrej Babis

Billionaire businessman Andrej Babis is leading the Czech parliamentary elections today in a race that could see Europe swing further to the right.

Babis - whose anti-immigrant rhetoric, deep pockets and legal woes rival even Donald Trump’s - promises to boost Czech investment, cut taxes, replace corrupt politicians and keep out refugees. It is a platform that has been received positively in the Czech Republic, where the 10.6 million-strong population is enjoying some of the strongest economic growth in Europe.

“He is like Trump, really,” Jiri Pehe, the director of the University of New York in Prague, told The New York Times. “You can watch him and see how he suffers in parliament, forced to listen to other people.” 

Both the US president and Babis have struck a chord with anti-immigration voters. Despite low levels of immigration to the Czech Republic, a balanced budget and 3.3% unemployment - the lowest in the EU - opinion polls in the small Central European country show strong support for Babis’s Ano (Yes) movement and for other protest parties.

“Although immigration to the Czech Republic is virtually non-existent, fear of it has played a big part in the campaign,” Reuters says.

The 63-year-old billionaire has suggested sealing his country’s borders and refusing to accept even one refugee - and it may prove to be a winning strategy. Anti-immigrant policies have already swung voters in Austria, where Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party has just been elected to power, while parties opposed to immigration upset Germany’s election last month, leaving Angela Merkel scrambling to pull together a coalition government. 

“In a year in which Europe has teetered through a series of fateful votes - in the Netherlands, France, Britain, Germany, Spain and then this weekend in Austria - the outcome of Czech parliamentary elections on Friday and Saturday may well determine whether a fissure between the more prosperous nations of Western Europe and the increasingly authoritarian countries of the east will widen into a chasm,” says The New York Times.

Babis, a former finance minister, is estimated to be worth $4.1bn (£3.1bn) - about $1bn more than Trump - with holdings in chemicals, food processing, farming and media. He also owns a two-Michelin star restaurant on the French Riviera, and has a total of four children from two marriages.

Despite a strong showing in polls this week, some predict the vote - with results to be announced late Saturday afternoon - could result in a coalition led by Ano that would see the Czech Republic continue relations with Germany, its main foreign investor and export market.

Police charged Babis earlier this month over an alleged fraud relating to an EU subsidy worth £1.75m, reports Reuters. Investigators have also been looking into his past tax strategies, which cost him the finance ministry in May. Babis denies any wrongdoing.

Whatever the outcome of these probes, as the case of America shows, voters can be willing to forgive financial transgressions in wealthy candidates.

As Fox News says of Babis: “He’s not your run-of-the-mill politician. He promises to drain the political swamp, thinks government should be run like a business, is disdained by elitists and is suspected of shady deals. And, oh, yes, he’s a billionaire.”

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