Andrej Babis, the business tycoon who made fortune exporting and importing fertilizers and founder of the anti-establishment political movement Ano, won the Czech Republic’s parliamentary elections by a landslide this past weekend.
Czech President, Miloš Zeman said he would name Babis as prime minister. However, the successful businessman still needs coalition partners to form a majority, which past fraud allegations and other scandals could obstruct.
63-year-old Babis, born to Slovak parents in Bratislava, is said to have joined the communist youth movement during his university years and shortly after starting work at Chemapol, the chemical company that would later become Petrimex, joined the communist party.
In 1985, Babis got the chance to go abroad to Morocco as a delegate of Petrimex. By 1990, Babis represented 12 Slovak firms in Rabat and was voted to the board of directors of the Slovak chemical importer.
But despite his successful business career, accusations of working as a secret agent for the Czechoslovak secret state security service StB began to trickle into Babis’ life and followed him into his political career. Most recently, the Nation’s Memory Institute of Slovakia accused Babis of collaborating with Stb under the code name Bures. Babis denied the accusations and sued the institute in 2013. Two years later, a regional court in Bratislava ruled that Babis had not collaborated with the secret police and cleared him of the accusations. In turn, the Slovak Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the institute.
In spite of these accusations, Babis’ career kept on flourishing. Thanks to his international experience, he was named managing director of Petrimex’s sub-division in Prague, Agrofert.
Babis eventually became Agrofert’s sole owner with the help of financing from undisclosed foreign sources. However, where these sources got their money from is still unknown. Czech journalists who have written about Babis and his business methods, such as Jaroslav Spurný also question the sources that Babis has used to finance Agrofert’s 200 subsidiaries in the agricultural, food, and chemicals sectors.
Today, Agrofert is among the highest-earning companies in the Czech Republic with a revenue of 155.3 billion Czech crowns (6.06 billion euros). After entering politics, Babis resigned as CEO but remains the sole owner of the company.
It is not quite clear why Babis decided to enter politics but in 2011 he created the anti-establishment political movement ANO, which stood for ‘Action for Dissatisfied Citizens Party’ and also means ‘yes’ in Czech. According to Babis, the party was founded to “fight corruption and other ills in the country’s political system.”
Babis’ anti-establishment speeches resonated enough with discontented Czechs to put his party in second place during the 2013 legislative election. ANO then entered into a coalition government with social democrats and Christian Democrats and Babis was appointed finance minister.
Around the same time, the Czech billionaire acquired an important part of Czech media, including Czech media house MAFRA, the daily newspapers Lidové Noviny and Mlada Fronta DNES, Ocko TV, and radio station Radio Impuls. This raised some conflict of interest for Babis who was accused of spreading biased coverage of his party on his radio stations and newspapers.
The Czech tycoon has also been at the center of fraud allegations and scandals since the start of his political career. Earlier this month, Babis was charged with fraudulent use of a two million euro EU subsidy for a conference and hotel compound, Capi hnizdo (Stork Nest) a decade ago. Babis has denied any wrongdoing and said the investigation was a plot by his adversaries to prevent him from taking power.
Babis and ANO deputy chief Jaroslav Faltynek lost parliamentary immunity in August and parliament allowed prosecution in September. If the case is brought to court, the men face potential prison sentences.
But despite these setbacks, Babis’ ANO party continues to be popular with Czech voters. Political commentator and journalist, Petr Nováček said Babis knows how to use to Czechs’ political discontent to their advantage. Nováček adds that Babis has charisma that other Czech politicians lack.
“When you talk to him close up, there’s no doubt that he has charisma. You can imagine the impact when he goes round Bohemian and Moravian districts and villages and goes to the pub and restaurants and has a drink with them. For some of them it must seem the event of a lifetime.”