Czech billionaire PM Babis seeks second term in tight election race

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Czechs begin voting on Friday in a tight parliamentary election in which Prime Minister Andrej Babis hopes to win a second term despite criticism that he mismanaged the pandemic, ran up heavy debts and mixed business interests with those of his country.

The two-day election kicks off at 2 pm local time (1200 GMT) and runs until 2 pm on Saturday.
Babis’s centrist ANO party remains ahead in opinion polls but its lead has narrowed in recent weeks to just a couple of percentage points over the two opposition groups who have pledged to work together to oust him.
Babis has vowed to continue raising public sector wages and pensions, policies that have benefited his main support bases.
His spending policies, which he has stuck with despite a broad recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, mark a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence, and the country’s debt is set to grow among the fastest growingin Europe, albeit from a low base. read more
The centre-right Together coalition and the progressive Pirates/Mayors have refused to work with the billionaire Babis over what they say are unacceptable conflicts of interest. He is the founder of the Agrofert food, farming, chemicals and media empire, whichemploys more than 30,000 people in central Europe.
Babis says he met all legal obligations by putting the firms into trust funds in 2017 before becoming prime minister. But a European Commission audit determined otherwise and it has stopped paying development grants to the group.
Babis faced new allegations on Sunday of using opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before he entered politics. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The opposition also blame Babis for chaotic policy changes during the pandemic. COVID-19 has claimed more than 30,000 Czech lives, one of Europe’s worst per-capita death tolls.
Babis has employed anti-migrant and anti-EU rhetoric in the campaign and has accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of failing the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro.
However, the opposition includes a eurosceptic wing and its European policies remain unclear.
President Milos Zeman, 77, a Babis ally who appoints prime ministers under the constitution, will forgo the custom of voting publicly this time due to unspecified health issues and will cast his ballot away from the media gaze at the presidential palace, his office said.
Babis will probablyget the first shot at forming a government but may find it difficult to find coalition partners.
He may try to team up with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party, despite opposing its demands to approve legislation allowing for a referendum to leave the EU.
Victory for the opposition would bring an improvement in relations with Brussels by ending Babis’s conflict-of-interest disputes. It would also set the Czechs further apart from regional partners Hungary and Poland, which have been at loggerheads with the EU over democratic standards.
“Babis is a small fish compared with what is going on in Poland and Hungary, but he has a problem of a similar type and thus the Commission cannot go against Hungary and Poland and ignore what is going on here,” said European studies lecturer Tomas Weiss from the Charles University.
“The moment he goes, this acute problem disappears.”

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