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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Anti-immigration businessman likely next Czech leader

The anti-immigration support follows similar trends in neighbouring countries.

The leader of ANO party Andrej Babis is tipped to be the next leader of the Czech Republic. REUTERS/Milan Kammermayer
The leader of ANO party Andrej Babis is tipped to be the next leader of the Czech Republic. REUTERS/Milan Kammermayer

Czechs voting today are tipped to hand power to Andrej Babis, a rich businessman turned politician pledging to sweep out traditional parties, boost investment and keep out refugees.

This anti-immigration support follows similar trends in neighbouring countries. Parties opposed to immigration scored highly in elections in Germany last month and Austria last week, and have fed scepticism toward Europe across the EU.

Although immigration to the Czech Republic, a country of 10 million people, is virtually non-existent, fear of it has played a big part in the campaign, with nearly all parties pledging to fight any attempts by the EU to force the Czechs to accept refugees distributed across the bloc.

The ANO movement, set up and tightly controlled by Mr Babis, has won support from both the right and left with pledges to cut taxes and replace corrupt politicians, as well as calls to seal Europe's borders and not accept a single refugee in the country. He offers a ban on Muslim immigrants and friendlier ties with Russia.

There have been demands that Mr Babis stay out of the cabinet because he has been charged by the police with fraud for allegedly misdirecting €2m in EU subsidies to a company owned by his children. He denies any wrongdoing.

Other critics of Mr Babis have expressed concern about the level of power Mr. Babis would wield in office. The former agricultural tycoon is worth an estimated $4bn and controls a number of Czech media outlets. He has openly said he intends to make the position of prime minister more powerful if he is elected, even going so far as to propose in his recent book that he would abolish the Czech senate.

Last month, parliament voted 123-4 to strip Mr. Babis of the immunity he enjoys as a member of parliament. He shouted at them: “You won’t silence me!...You won’t get rid of me!”

He has pledged to run the Czech Republic “like a family business” and during one of his rallies this week, where he reportedly passes out doughnuts to those in attendance, he told crowds “This is our last chance to knock down a corrupt establishment”.

The central European country has enjoyed fast economic growth, a balanced budget and the lowest unemployment in the European Union, but opinion polls nevertheless show strong voter support for Babis's ANO movement and other protest parties.

ANO has maintained its rhetoric of opposition to the ruling system despite serving in the outgoing government together with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's centre-left Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats.

Final surveys before a polling blackout since Tuesday gave ANO, which means "Yes" in Czech, about 25-27 percent support, although indicating a slightly declining trend.