By Jason Hovet and Robert Muller
PRAGUE -Czechs wrapped up voting in a tight election on Saturday in which Prime Minister Andrej Babis battled criticism that he mismanaged the pandemic, stoked fast-rising debt with handouts and tended to his own business interests in office.
The billionaire, who denies all the accusations, and his populist ANO party took a slight poll lead going into the central European country’s vote.
Seeking a second term, he says the country needed stability and was prospering better than before.
Voting ended at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) and results will start to come through later on Saturday.
Babis vowed in his campaign to continue raising public sector wages and pensions, hoping to shore up the basis of his popular support. He also stepped up his anti-migrant rhetoric and pledged to prevent ceding powers to the European Union.
But he faced a strong challenge from the centre-right Together coalition and the progressive Pirates/Mayors bloc that 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.
ANO was unlikely to secure a majority but looked certain to win more votes than any single party, giving the premier the first shot at forming the next government.
His party may struggle to find partners, with two parties that backed the outgoing minority government at risk of losing their lower house seats. That could force ANO to seek an alliance with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party.
Babis’s big-spending policies, maintained despite a broad recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, mark a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. Debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the bloc, albeit from a low base.
Some voters said they were voting against this populism.
“I will vote for Spolu (Together) because I want a change,” said Jan Mrazek, a 39-year-old manager, before casting his vote in a northern Prague district.
“I don’t like how the government has been running, the disorganisation during the pandemic and how they are piling up debt because they are just populists throwing money around.”
The opposition has blamed Babis for chaotic policy changes during the peak of pandemic. More than 30,000 people have died from the virus, one of Europe’s worst per-capita death tolls.
Conflict of interest allegations, however, have been Babis’s main headache since entering government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning a 2017 election.
The 67-year-old, fifth on Forbes’ list of richest Czechs, 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.
New allegations surfaced last weekend that Babis used opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before entering politics. He denied the allegations contained in the “Pandora Papers” documenting hidden offshore finance, saying they are part of a campaign against him.
Babis has accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of selling out the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro.
He has also criticised Together’s leading party, the Civic Democrats, for failed policies when they led the country a decade ago.