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Populist Billionaire Media Mogul Andrej Babis Wins Czech Election

PRAGUE — A centrist movement led by populist Andrej Babis decisively won the Czech Republic's parliamentary election Saturday in a vote that shifted the country to the right and paved the way for the billionaire to become its next prime minister.

Babis — who is the country's second-richest man, with a media empire including two major newspapers and a popular radio station — won in a landslide.

With all votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said his ANO party had won 29.6 percent of the vote, or 78 of the 200 seats in the lower house of Parliament.

Image: Andrej Babis, leader of the ANO movement
Andrej Babis, Slovak-born billionaire and leader of the ANO movement, speaks next to his wife Monika, after the first results prognosis of Czech parliamentary elections in Prague, Czech Republic, on Saturday. FILIP SINGER / EPA

"It's a huge success," the 63-year-old Babis told supporters and journalists at his headquarters in Prague.

Although he was a finance minister in the outgoing government until May, many Czechs see him as a maverick outsider with the business acumen to shake up the system. With slogans claiming he can easily fix the country's problems, he is, for some, the Czech answer to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Since the leader of the strongest party usually gets to form a new government, Babis could be the country's next leader despite being linked to several scandals — including being charged by police with fraud linked to European Union subsidies.

The charges will likely make it difficult for Babis to find the coalition partners he needs to build a parliamentary majority. He didn't immediately say which parties he preferred but has invited all parties that won seats in parliament for talks.

In a blow to the country's political elite, four of the top five vote-getting parties Saturday had challenged the traditional political mainstream.

The Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, whose leader wants to quit the EU and urged Czechs to walk pigs near mosques and stop eating kebabs, won just under 10.7 percent of the vote, potentially giving it a chance to influence how the next government is formed.

The far-right party was set up in 2015 by Tomio Okamura, a half-Japanese entrepreneur who made his name by creating an off-beat travel agency for cuddly toys before entering politics.

"We want to stop any Islamization of the Czech Republic, we push for zero tolerance of migration," Okamura told reporters after the results were called, bringing the SPD almost neck-and-neck with two other parties who were runners-up to Babis's ANO party.

Okamura was first elected to the lower house for the Dawn party in 2013 but was later ousted in a spat over irregularities in party finances.

Image: Tomio Okamura, the leader of Freedom and Direct Democracy party
The leader of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party Tomio Okamura speaks during a press conference at the party's election headquarters after the country's parliamentary elections in Prague, Czech Republic, on Saturday. STRINGER / Reuters

This time around, the entrepreneur pounced on anti-foreigner feeling that has soared in the nation of 10.6 million, despite record-low unemployment, growing wages and relatively little immigration.

Other outside parties also did well squeezing the traditional political mainstream. The Social Democrats, the senior party in the outgoing government, captured only 7.3 percent — 15 seats — while the Christian Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, won only 5.8 percent support or 10 seats.

"It's a voting hurricane," analyst Michal Klima told the Czech television, referring to the poor results for the mainstream parties.

Babis' centrist movement stormed Czech politics four years ago, finishing a surprising second with an anti-corruption message. Babis has also been critical of the EU and opposes setting a date for when his country would adopt the shared euro currency.

Like most Czech parties, ANO also rejects accepting refugees under the EU's quota system.

But Babis played down his euroskeptic views after his victory.

"We're oriented on Europe," he said. "We're not a threat for democracy. I'm ready to fight for our interests in Brussels. We're a firm part of the European Union. We're a firm part of NATO."

Still, some experts saw a strong shift to the right for the Czech Republic if Babis works out a coalition government with the SPD.

"Should [Babis] join forces with Okamura, the Czech Republic would be facing difficult times," Klima said.