Czech opposition grabs election win from PM Babis, wants to form government

·4 min read
Czech Prime Minister and leader of ANO party, Babis, casts his vote in parliamentary elections in Lovosice

By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Czech centre-right opposition group Together beat Prime Minister Andrej Babis's ANO party in a surprise parliamentary election result on Saturday and pledged to form a new government with allies who will have a combined majority of seats.

Together and another opposition group, the liberal Pirates/Mayors, were on track to win a combined 108 seats in the 200-seat lower house of parliament, a calculation by Czech Television showed.

This gives the two parties a chance to replace Babis and his two allied parties, which both dropped out of parliament in the two-day election that ended at mid-day on Saturday.

Babis, 67, battled criticism during the campaign that he mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic, stoked fast-rising debt with handouts and tended to his own business interests in office. Babis has denied all the accusations.

"We have brought a chance that we will stop getting in debt, that we will remain a part of democratic Europe," Together leader Petr Fiala, 57, a former political science lecturer and university rector, told reporters.

"Within 24 hours, negotiations will take place with the leaders of the Pirates/Mayors. The results are clear, the democratic opposition won a clear majority."

Results from 99.97% of voting districts showed Together at 27.78%, pulling ahead of ANO with 27.13% and the Pirates/Mayors at 15.60%.

The coalitions refuse to work with Babis over what they say are his unacceptable conflicts of interest related to the business empire he created before entering politics.

The opposition has pledged to cut the budget deficit and improve government transparency.

It may have to bridge differences among its members on policies such as the approach to European Union partners, with one faction eurosceptic but some others favouring more European integration.

The Communist Party, which had backed Babis' minority administration for the past four years, dropped out of parliament for the first time since just after World War Two. His other partner, the centre-left Social Democrats, also dropped out of parliament.

PRESIDENT FAVOURS ANO

The result is a blow to President Milos Zeman, an ally of Babis, and the Communists, voted out of parliament for the first time since the end of World War Two.

Zeman has indicated he would still give Babis the first attempt to form a government if ANO won the most votes, which it did as an individual party - a scenario that could keep Babis in power for months and which the opposition have feared.

Babis conceded Together won more votes as a coalition but did not signal a move into opposition.

"If the president authorises me to do so, I will lead talks on forming a cabinet," he said.

This is despite the fact that he has no mathematical chance for a majority if Together - a coalition of three centre-right liberal and conservative parties - and Pirates/Mayors stick to their pledge to work together.

Babis was due to meet Zeman on Sunday and again on Wednesday.

Fiala, speaking to reporters amid the cheers of party members, said that any government must be backed by a majority in parliament and he expected the president to respect that.

Babis' big-spending policies, maintained despite a broad recovery from the pandemic, marked a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. Debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the EU, albeit from a low base.

The opposition has also blamed Babis for chaotic policy changes during the peak of the pandemic. More than 30,000 people have died from the virus, one of Europe's highest death tolls in terms of the size of the population.

Babis has also been plagued by conflict of interest allegations since he entered government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning a 2017 election.

Babis put his Agrofert conglomerate of food, agriculture, chemical and media companies in trust funds in 2017 and has denied wrongdoing, saying he met legal obligations. But a European Commission audit determined there was a conflict of interest and it has stopped development grants to Agrofert.

(Additional reporting by Robert Muller; editing by Mark Heinrich, Mike Harrison, Frances Kerry and Philippa Fletcher)

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