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article image'Czech Trump' fans eurosceptism two days before vote

By Jan MARCHAL (AFP)     Oct 18, 2017 in World

A billionaire populist known as the "Czech Trump" wooed eurosceptic voters on Wednesday with promises of a "fair" deal from Europe if he wins this week's general election as expected.

Andrej Babis, 63, who heads the ANO (Yes) movement, is the clear favourite for prime minister in the October 20 and 21 ballot where traditional pro-EU parties are forecast to take a thrashing.

Analysts say that already-strong eurosceptism in the EU member country could further intensify, echoing trends in neighbouring countries in the bloc.

Voters on Wednesday received a letter in the mail from Babis vowing that "the Czech Republic will not adopt the euro" should he take office.

But he insisted he is "all for a single Europe which plays fair and where nobody is a second-class member".

- 'Czexit' chatter -

After Britain's vote to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum, some have even started to talk about the prospect of "Czexit".

Two-thirds of Czechs said the EU's decisions were not in the interest of their country in an April survey by the independent CVVM pollsters.

"Some voters, politicians and journalists are inclined to present these elections as a kind of referendum on Babis, but what's worse and more dangerous is that topics like the migrant crisis and criticism of the EU are gaining more ground," Charles University analyst Josef Mlejnek told AFP.

Babis echoes other eastern EU leaders -- especially in Hungary and Poland -- who also oppose mandatory EU refugee quotas and various rules they see as attempts by Brussels to limit national sovereignty.

While Babis has ruled out "Czexit", he does want changes to the bloc's rules on free movement of capital, goods, labour and services.

- Far-right rise -

The far-right anti-EU Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD  which is headed by Tomio Okamur...
The far-right anti-EU Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD, which is headed by Tomio Okamura (R), is set to gain ground when the Czech Republic votes in a general election on October 20-21
MICHAL CIZEK, AFP/File

An openly far-right anti-EU party with links to Marine Le Pen's National Front in France is also set to gain ground, thanks in large part to its staunchly anti-migrant stance.

Led by Tokyo-born entrepreneur and lawmaker Tomio Okamura, Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), has scored between 7.3 to 10.5-percent support in the polls, which would take is past the five-percent threshold needed to enter the 200-seat parliament.

In a recent poll by the Czech Academy of Sciences, ANO scored 30.9 percent -- more than the combined support for two traditional heavyweights in Czech politics, the Social Democrat CSSD and the rightwing ODS. They scored 13.1 percent and 9.1 percent respectively.

- Corruption scandals -

ANO already held key posts in the current rocky centre-left coalition under Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka, with Babis holding the finance portfolio between January 2014 and May this year.

The Slovak-born tycoon -- ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic's second wealthiest citizen -- is riding high on "strong voter aversion to political parties tarnished by corruption scandals," analyst Mlejnek told AFP.

So far, Babis's popularity has not been touched by various scandals, including recent fraud charges over EU subsidies received by one of his companies.

Voter support for ANO has surged as he sticks to his promise to fight graft in public life and to "manage the state like a family business".

"He offers the voters a populist alternative by presenting himself as someone capable of managing the state because he has already successfully managed his conglomerate," Mlejnek said.

Heavily dependent on car production and exports to the eurozone, the Czech economy has fared well in recent years.

Unemployment stood at just 3.8 percent in September and economic growth is expected to pick up to 3.1 percent this year after 2.6 percent in 2016, according to the finance ministry.

- Anti-EU coalition? -

The CSSD  the party of Social Democrat premier Bohuslav Sobotka  is expected to struggle during this...
The CSSD, the party of Social Democrat premier Bohuslav Sobotka, is expected to struggle during this week's general election in the Czech Republic
VLADIMIR SIMICEK, AFP/File

Babis insist he "can't imagine" forging a governing coalition with anti-EU parties like Okamura's far-right SPD or the far-left KSCM communist party, which scored up to 14.4 percent in recent polls.

But critics noted that the three parties joined forces in parliament on Monday to oppose granting an Australian company mining rights to a Czech lithium deposit.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said that he "sees the seeds of a coalition between Babis, (communist head Vojtech) Filip and Okamura."

Sobotka, who handed the leadership of his struggling CSSD Social Democrats to pro-European Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek during the elections, insists that any possible future coalition deal with ANO would not include Babis.

Three months after this week's general election, Czechs will choose their new president in the second-ever direct presidential election.

Outspoken leftwinger Milos Zeman, a 73-year-old pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, anti-immigration Babis supporter, will compete for his second five-year term in that vote.

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