Billionaire at the helm
Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic second-richest man, wins the country's election
28 October, 2017
Maverick billionaire, political populist, mould breaker, the Czech Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump. These are all labels that have been tagged on to Andrej Babis, whose ANO centrist political movement decisively won last week's parliamentary election putting him on a strong position to become the country's next PM. No doubt, the 63-year-old Slovak-born businessman has been the dominant figure on the Czech political scene over the last four years, and now he has got the chance to even lead the country in the direction he considers right.
His victory is a landslide for a country where major party rarely reaches over 25% at an election. But with all votes counted, Babis' ANO party had won 29.6% of the vote, nearly three times that of its closest rival, or 78 of the 200 seats in the lower house of Parliament. “It's a huge success,” the billionaire, whose empire stretches from chemicals through food-processing and trade to media, told supporters and journalists at his headquarters in Prague. Although he was a finance minister in the outgoing government until May, many Czechs still see him as an outsider with the business acumen to shake up the system.
Born in 1954 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to a family belonging to the then-communist elite of the country, Babis spent a part of his childhood abroad. His father was a diplomat and prominent member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia who has represented Czechoslovakia at the GATT negotiations in Geneva and has also been a consultant at the UN. After being educated in Paris and Geneva, Babis graduated from the Bratislava University of Economics, where he studied international trade.
Following his studies, he worked as an employee of the Slovak communist international trade company Petrimex, and in 1985 he was appointed as the organisation's representative in Morocco. It was namely for his work there that he was accused to be a “powerful agent” for the Czechoslovak secret state security service. Upon returning from Morocco in 1991, he resided in the Czech Republic after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. In 1993, Babis became managing director of Agrofert and gradually developed it into one of the largest companies in the country.
Agrofert had been a subsidiary of Petrimex while Babis was on the board. Namely then, Agrofert was quietly recapitalised by an obscure Swiss entity, OFI, located in the small Swiss town of Baar, which took control of Agrofert from Petrimex. Petrimex later fired Babis and sued him, unsuccessfully, for allowing the firm's stake in Agrofert to be diluted. Soon thereafter, Babis turned out to be the 100% owner of the firm.
After amassing a fortune worth over $4bn, Babis turned to politics with slogans claiming he can easily fix the country's problems. In 2011, he founded the ANO political movement, which at 2013 parliamentary elections became second and entered the ruling coalition as junior partner. Babis himself became deputy PM and finance minister but in May 2017 was sacked by PM Bohuslav Sobotka on allegations of tax manipulations as Agrofert owner.
Nevertheless, the billionaire who owns a media empire, including two major newspapers and a popular radio station, and is charged by police with fraud linked to EU subsidies, is much more popular than his political rivals and politicians from traditional parties. For most Czechs, Babis gets to the point and gets things done.
With eight parties entering parliament, Babis has rich choice in searching for coalition partners. He has invited all to talks about the future government, but has hinted about no cooperation with far-right, which won 10.6%, and the communists, who are on 7.8%. Babis' possible coalition partners include Civic Democratic Party with 11.3% and the Czech Pirate Party, which gained 10.8% and entered parliament for the first time. Social Democrats fell to meagre 7.3% from 20.5% in 2013, and most likely will not be considered as a possible partner. But whoever agrees to enter the government it will be mostly Babis who will set the direction.