Seeking re-election, Czech PM pledges to keep migrants, Brussels at bay

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FILE PHOTO: EU leaders summit in Brussels

By Robert Muller

USTI NAD LABEM, Czech Republic (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis launched his populist ANO party's campaign for re-election on Thursday vowing to keep out migrants and prevent ceding national powers to Brussels.

The central European country took in almost no migrants when a wave of asylum seekers swept the continent in 2015, and echoing Hungary's leader Viktor Orban, Babis has continued to resist accepting migrants as an important part of his message to the public.

"This is the last chance to protect our national interests, living standards, our culture," Babis said, launching the campaign for the Oct. 8-9 parliamentary election on his 67th birthday in the northern city of Usti nad Labem.

He said the opposition would hand over national sovereignty to Brussels and "break up" the Visegrad Group alliance with Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, which Babis has praised despite Hungary's and Poland's frequent standoffs with European institutions.

"As long as I am prime minister, we will not accept a single illegal migrant," he said, recalling his resistance to past EU plans to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.

ANO is leading in opinion polls, but not by enough to win an outright majority, raising the possibility of lengthy post-election haggling over a new administration.

A centre-left coalition and another on the centre-right are the main challengers to Babis. The latest opinion polls gave ANO around 30% support, followed by the two opposition groups with around 20% each and a handful of smaller parties who could become kingmakers.

Babis vowed not to adopt the euro currency and to continue raising pensions, in a nod to ANO's strongest electoral support base.

The country has suffered the second-highest coronavirus death rate per population in the EU and one of the highest in the world, with over 30,400 deaths so far.

The opposition groups have accused Babis of mismanagement, and they topped opinion polls in the spring when the pandemic filled up hospitals. But their support has since dipped.

The opposition accuse Babis of conflicts of interest as a prime minister and founder of the Agrofert chemicals, farming and media empire. Babis has moved his firms to trust funds, which he says is sufficient to comply with the law.

He also faces a protracted fraud investigation relating to an EU grant, but he denies any wrongdoing.

The government has been helped by a solid economic rebound, with the finance ministry forecasting 3.2% economic growth this year.

It has cut income taxes and raised public sector wages and pensions, which together with the impact of the pandemic have helped widen this year's expected budget deficit to 7.7%. Private sector economists have called this reckless.

President Milos Zeman has said he would reappoint Babis as prime minister if ANO wins the most votes as a single party, which is almost certain given that the main challengers are coalitions including two and three parties.

This could give Babis months in power after the election even if he struggles to form a ruling majority.

(Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jan Lopatka and Hugh Lawson)

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