The Ano party founded by billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis scored a resounding victory in the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections on Saturday, as the central European country became the latest to witness a surge in support for populist groups.
With 99 per cent of polling stations having reported, Ano had received 29.8 per cent of the vote, almost 20 points ahead of its nearest rival. Two other groups opposed to the political mainstream, the far-right SPD and the Pirate Party, were poised to take third and fourth place.
“This is an earthquake. It’s a total revolt against the established parties and the mainstream,” says Milan Nic, an expert on the region from the German Council on Foreign Relations. “Since the 1990s I can’t recall elections that changed the political landscape so much.”
The result is the latest in a wave of successes for populists in European elections this year, after a strong showing for the National Front in France’s presidential election, the entry of the AfD into Germany’s Bundestag, and gains for the Freedom party in Austria.
With the exception of the Euro-sceptic Civic Democrats, who looked set to take second place with around 11.2 per cent of the vote, the Czech Republic’s traditional parties had a dismal night — even though the vote took place against the backdrop of a booming economy which boasted the lowest unemployment rate in the EU.
The Social Democrats, who led the previous coalition which also contained Ano and the Christian Democrats, saw their vote share collapse from 20.5 in 2013 to 7.3 per cent this year. The Christian Democrats’s share declined from 6.8 to 5.8 per cent.
Ano’s deputy chairman Jaroslav Faltynek said Ano would first talk to its former coalition partners about forming a new government, but added it would talk to all parties in parliament. Nine of them look set to clear the 5 per cent hurdle.
Despite serving as finance minister for most of the last four years, Mr Babis — who founded Ano in 2011 — ran a campaign that was relentlessly critical of the Czech Republic’s established parties, and which portrayed him as an outsider and a businessman capable of overhauling the inefficient state.
He suffered two setbacks in the run-up to the election, with police charging him in relation to an investigation into an EU subsidy for a project known as the Stork’s Nest, and Slovakia’s Constitutional Court ordering a lower court to revisit a case over whether he collaborated with the secret police during the Communist era.
Mr Babis repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in relation to the Stork’s Nest investigation, and strongly denied ever collaborating with the secret police. Neither affair appears to have had a big impact on voters.
Alongside Mr Babis, the other big election victor was Tomio Okamura, the head of the SPD, who campaigned on an uncompromisingly anti-immigrant platform, and also demanded a referendum on the Czech Republic’s membership of the EU.
Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague, said that Mr Okamura had been successful in rallying voters who had previously voted for a variety of parties. “In the 90s people also voted in these numbers for the extreme right . . . and I think that Okamura simply consolidated this section of the electorate. There is a potential of between 10 and 15 per cent,” he said.
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