Andrej Babiš, the Czech Republic’s billionaire prime minister, is close to losing power after his party and its coalition partners lost significant ground in a general election fought days after embarrassing revelations about his financial affairs.
In a poll overshadowed by intense speculation about the health of the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, the prime minister’s Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party (ANO) was tied with an opposition faction to be the largest grouping after its share of the vote fell from its victorious 2017 election. With nearly all the votes counted, Spolu (Together) had 27.7% of the vote compared with ANO’s 27.2%, a result that sparked celebrations at Spolu’s headquarters.
The electoral blow followed disclosures in the Pandora Papers that Babiš – a former oligarch and owner of a giant industrial conglomerate, Agrofert – set up offshore companies to buy a chateau for £13m in the French Riviera, a move at odds with his political message of anti-corruption and financial transparency.
ANO’s loss was compounded by the failure of both the Czech social democrats (ČSSD), its junior coalition partner, and the Communist party (KSČM) – whose votes have kept Babiš’s government in power – to pass the 5% electoral threshold needed to enter parliament, all but cutting off Babiš’s route to a new coalition.
The result appeared to signal a highly symbolic final consignment to historical oblivion for the communists, who ruled the former Czechoslovakia with an iron fist for more than 40 years before being toppled in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, amid the collapse of communism throughout eastern Europe.
The outcome held the prospect of a majority coalition comprising the centre-right Spolu grouping and Pir-STAN, a liberal-left faction consisting of the Pirates and the Mayors and Independent (STAN) parties.
With 99% of the votes counted, the two factions – which formed on platforms of defending liberal democracy against Babiš’s populist tendencies and keeping the Czech Republic in the western orbit – were on course to win 108 out of 200 seats in the chamber of deputies, potentially enough for a viable coalition.
The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD), which had made a referendum on EU withdrawal its price of entering government, looked to have also lost ground, set for less than 10% of the vote.
Babiš’s options for a new coalition appear restricted to trying to divide the Civic Democrats, the largest party in the Spolu grouping, from its partners and seeking an agreement, a possibility repudiated by its leader, Petr Fiala, who has publicly ruled out entering a coalition with ANO, even if Babiš resigned as leader.
Jiří Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a Czech political analyst, hailed the results as a triumph for liberal democracy and said they signalled the end of the post-communist era.
“We are probably watching the end of Babiš’s era in Czech politics and because he was in large part created politically by Miloš Zeman, with the poor health of Mr Zeman we are probably looking at the end of his era too,” said Pehe. “I would put it together and say it is the end of the post-communist era in Czech politics. It’s a real change.
“The two opposition groupings were formed because they wanted to be sure that liberal democracy would not be under the same attack as in Hungary and Poland. So we are certainly not going in the same direction as those countries.”
Babiš fought a fear-mongering campaign that vowed to protect the Czech Republic from illegal immigrants and involved maligning the EU – whose subsidies have flowed into Agrofert, prompting successive conflict of interest investigations. In recent weeks, he attempted to deploy Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, as a campaign aide, taking him on an electioneering trip to the northern city of Usti nad Labem, where Babiš is a constituency MP.
As president, Zeman, 77, has repeatedly promised to give Babiš first option at forming a new government, if ANO finished as the biggest party, deeming other coalition groupings as “fraud” on the electorate. However, Zeman’s political powers have appeared diminished by ill health.
Having spent eight days last month at Prague’s military hospital, the president – now in a wheelchair and suffering from neuropathy in his feet – did not vote in public as is customary on Friday but was instead photographed casting his ballot in a private booth at the countryside presidential retreat in Lany in central Bohemia. A televised interview on the election results with the local Czech CNN outlet scheduled for Sunday was cancelled because of his ill health.
Speculation about the gravity of his condition grew so intense that his office was even forced to deny rumours that it was concealing news of his death.