Czech agro tycoon emerges as king-maker after election

Czech agro tycoon emerges as king-maker after election

PRAGUE - Slovak-born billionaire and political novice Andrej Babis became the king-maker of Czech politics on Saturday, after voters angry at graft among the country's political establishment made his new party the second biggest in parliament.

The mercurial 59-year-old overcame being a non-native Czech speaker and a hazy political programme to win 18.7 per cent of the vote in the election, just behind the Social Democrats, who garnered a disappointing 20.5 per cent.

Given rivalries and ill-will among some of the other parties, it seemed the formation of any new government could require the involvement of a candidate whose campaign consisted of a simple message - that he was not a politician.

"I would not go into politics if the country functioned normally," Babis told Reuters in an interview last month.

"We could be much better off. We used to be among the best European countries before World War Two and we should take advantage of the potential we have."

Czech voters, tired of a long string of graft scandals that have tarnished the political elite, saw Babis as a self-made man who earned money from business rather than shady public tenders.

"He is making the same appeal as (Eurosceptic Frank) Stronach in Austria or (Silvio) Berlusconi in Italy, which is that he is a practical businessman who can get things done, who has done things in life, and who can run the country like a firm," said Sean Hanley, senior lecturer of Slavonic East European Studies at University College London.

"He has managed to put himself across as an anti-establishment outsider, but also as fairly moderate and sensible."

Yet the wealthy Babis, a former Communist party member, is also an unlikely rallying point for Czechs left behind in a society where the gap between rich and poor has widened since the fall of Communism.

Babis first built a career in a Socialist-era chemicals trading firm during the 1980s, which he parlayed into a multibillion dollar diversified business after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that swept the Communists from power.

His companies employ 28,000 people across central Europe, and had a turnover of $6.91 billion last year. Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at $2 billion.

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