Czech opposition grabs election win from PM Babis

imageWorld50 minutes ago (Oct 09, 2021 12:46PM ET)

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(C) Reuters. Czech Prime Minister and leader of ANO party, Andrej Babis, looks on ahead of casting his vote in parliamentary elections in Lovosice, Czech Republic October 8, 2021. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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By Jason Hovet and Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech centre-right opposition group Together overtook Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s ANOP party in a parliamentary election on Saturday, according to nearly complete voting results.

Together and another opposition group, the liberal Pirates/Mayors were on track to win a combined 108 seats in the 200-seat lower house of parliament, a calculation by Czech Televison showed.

This gives the two parties a chance to form a majority government to replace Babis and his two allied parties, which both dropped out of parliament in the two-day election that ended at mid-day on Saturday.

Babis,67, battled criticism during the campaign that he mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic, stoked fast-rising debt with handouts and tended to his own business interests in office. Babis denies all the accusations against him.

Results from 98.3% of voting districts showed Together at 27.49%, pulling ahead of ANO with 27.39% and the Pirates/Mayors at 15.39%.

“Democratic opposition will have a majority and that means and end of the dominance of Andrej Babis,” Pirate Party chief Ivan Bartos said. “Tonight we will… probably start talks with the other coalition on the possibility of forming the future government.”

The coalitions refuse to work with Babis over what they say are his unacceptable conflicts of interest related to the business empire he created before entering politics.

The opposition has pledged to cut the budget deficit and improve government transparency.

It may have to bridge differences among its members on policies such as the approach to European Union partners, with one faction eurosceptic but some others favouring more European integration.

The Communist Party, which had backed Babis’s minority administration for the past four years, dropped out of parliament for the first time since World War Two.

PRESIDENT FAVOURS ANO

President Milos Zeman has said he would give Babis the first attempt to form a government if ANO wins the most votes, which it still did as an individual party.

But if Together – a coalition of three centre-right liberal and conservative parties – and Pirates/Mayors stick to their pledge not to work with ANO, Babis will not have the mathematical chance to form a majority.

Babis’s big-spending policies, maintained despite a broad recovery from the pandemic, marked a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. Debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the EU, albeit from a low base.

Some voters said the policies were damaging.

“I will vote for Spolu (Together) because I want a change,” Jan Mrazek, a 39-year-old manager, said before casting his vote in a northern Prague district on Saturday.

“I don’t like how the government has been running, the disorganisation during the pandemic and how they are piling up debt because they are just populists throwing money around.”

BATTLING BRUSSELS

The opposition has blamed Babis for chaotic policy changes during the peak of the pandemic. More than 30,000 people have died from the virus, one of Europe’s highest death tolls in terms of the size of the population.

Babis has also been plagued by conflict of interest allegations since he entered government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning a 2017 election.

Babis put his Agrofert conglomerate of food, agriculture, chemical and media companies in trust funds in 2017 and has denied wrongdoing, saying he met legal obligations. But a European Commission audit determined there was a conflict of interest and it has stopped development grants to Agrofert.

New allegations surfaced last weekend that Babis used opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before entering politics. He denied the allegations contained in the “Pandora (OTC:PANDY) Papers” documenting hidden offshore finance, saying they are part of a campaign against him.

Babis has accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of selling out the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro.

Czech opposition grabs election win from PM Babis

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