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PRAGUE – The man set to rule the Czech Republic after this week’s election is a polarizing billionaire who promises to empty the political swamp in the capital, run his country like a business and weed out Muslim immigrants.
He presents himself as the outspoken voice of the common man and garners support from the country’s forgotten communities. He laughs at attacking the European Union and claims that NATO’s mission is outdated. He vows to put the interests of his own nation above all else, but is pursued by investigations into alleged shady deals that threaten to cripple his political career.
Andrej Babis resembles the US president so much in profile and outlook that he feels compelled to offer at least one key distinction.
“I have never gone bankrupt,” the 63-year-old says mischievously in an interview in his featureless office park on the outskirts of this town gloriously riddled with gargoyles and spiers.
There are also other differences. But the big picture is clear: Europe, a land where President Trump is widely vilified, may soon have a man who eerily resembles the head of a nation in the heart of the continent.
“People here may not like Trump,” said Jiri Pehe, director of the Prague campus at New York University. “But they like Trumpian politics as interpreted by Mr. Babis.”
Babis won’t be alone either. If Friday and Saturday’s elections propel him to the prime minister’s office, as polls likely suggest, he could plant a flag further west for a strongman’s vision of a government that is testing young democracies in the is – and in so doing, puts European unity to the test.
“He’s not a democrat,” said Pehe, a former adviser to Vaclav Havel, the Czech anti-Communist dissident turned president. “The danger here is that the Czech Republic could slide to the European periphery, along with Hungary and Poland.”
Austria, too, is moving in this direction, after elections on Sunday that put a 31-year-old conservative candidate for chancellor who has emulated many far-right Freedom Party policies – and should make the Eurosceptic party its partner in government.
The Czech Republic’s own turn to the east is, in many ways, surprising. Among the nations that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain nearly three decades ago, the Czech Republic does the best in many ways. With a solid manufacturing base, it has the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, a budget surplus and life satisfaction rates that would be the envy of Italians or Spaniards.
Unlike Poland, it has not suffered a massive exodus of its young workers. Unlike Hungary, there were not hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers crossing its territory at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.
But the Czech Republic has consistently low wages, as well as a notoriously corrupt political class. It also has older residents who yearn for the simpler days of their Communist youth, when the almighty state was protecting them.
The combination has made the nation of 10 million people a breeding ground for populism. And Babis, the second richest man in the country, seized the opportunity.
The businessman, who first earned his fortune under still mysterious circumstances in the first years after the collapse of communism, makes an unlikely champion of the little guy.
Born in today’s Slovakia as the son of a diplomat, he spent part of his youth in Switzerland and is fluent in German, French and English. As an adult, he lived in Morocco for years. Its vast business empire includes agricultural and chemical companies, Michelin-starred restaurants and a significant portion of the Czech national media.
He was new to politics when in 2012 he founded his own party, Disgruntled Citizens Action, known by its Czech acronym ANO, which means “yes”.
The party, which runs on a pro-business and anti-establishment political platform, stunned the nation a year later when it took second place in the parliamentary election. Babis became finance minister in a coalition government and served until May, when he was kicked out amid a whirlwind of charges of alleged tax evasion and other irregularities – which he denies all.
But the eviction did not weaken him. On the contrary, it may have bolstered his carefully cultivated reputation as a political outsider that insiders would do anything to ruin.
“People say I’m a danger to democracy in this country, which of course is ridiculous,” he said, his gray suit carefully ironed, his gray hair and beard trimmed. “I am a danger to this corrupt system.”
It’s a message he repeats over and over again on the track, where he signs copies of his expertly produced campaign book and gives his cell phone number to people who say they might need his help to fight. against the turgescent Czech bureaucracy.
“He’s a normal guy,” said Zdena Krskova, a 69-year-old woman who was shopping for dinner one day at an open-air market in a working-class neighborhood in northern Prague. “Besides, he has enough money, so he doesn’t have to steal from people.”
Babis’ support is concentrated outside of Prague, in small towns and villages that have not shared the same increase in prosperity as the country’s tourist capital. It also comes from older voters looking to the billionaire to shed the messy logistics of democratic politics and use a steady hand to restore a bygone era simpler, said Daniel Prokop, head of political polls for the firm of ‘Median studies.
“His voters are authoritarian,” said Prokop. “If you ask if it’s better to have a strong leader or democratic decision-making, his people say a strong leader. “
And there’s a reason they revolve around Babis.
“He’s used to doing what he wants,” said Jan Machacek, who heads a Babis-funded think tank. “Compromise is not in his genes.”
Machacek, who was a Communist-era dissident, said the billionaire’s political rise reflected widespread disappointment among Czech voters who had high hopes for a democratic system they believed could solve the nation’s ills. Instead, he said, they have weak parties and corrupt politicians.
The consequence of such disillusionment, he said, “could be much worse than Mr. Babis.”
Unlike Trump, Machacek said, Babis is not a showboat. He is a demanding businessman who does not deliberately wreak havoc.
Yet Babis has shown a willingness to fight with powerful European leaders, especially on the refugee issue.
In the interview, Babis mocked the programs under which EU members are supposed to share the burden of welcoming asylum seekers, denigrated the notion of a “multicultural society” and, referring to the German Chancellor blamed the 2015 refugee crisis on “Madame Merkel’s stupidity.”
Such comments could mean more problems for the EU, which is grappling with how to deal with populist governments in Hungary and Poland. In both countries, leaders are used to demonizing migrants and flouting the will of Brussels for domestic gain.
Babis appears to be using a similar approach – at least during the campaign.
“It works with fear. Promote danger – the EU and migrants, ”said Ivan Gabal, an independent MP who aligns with the center-right Christian Democrats. “That’s the whole strategy.
In the Czech Republic – where anti-EU and anti-migrant sentiments are both high – this seems to be a winner. But this is not unusual here, and Babis came there relatively late.
Even if Babis’ party comes out on top this week, it will have to find coalition partners. It will also have to face multiple investigations into its business practices. And he will have to work with Europe.
All of this suggests that, like Trump, Babis may change course on some of his campaign promises once he faces the reality of government. And unlike Trump, Gabal said, Babis is able to admit he’s wrong.
“When you present him with data and say, ‘You’re not right. The situation is different ”, he will examine it. And accept it, ”said Gabal, whose party has been in coalition with Babis’ – and could be post-election again. “He’s not stupid.
Katerina Santurova contributed to this report.