Power, Corruption and Fireworks

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Andrej Babis is a billionaire agricultural magnate and former Czech prime minister who is currently a leading candidate for the presidency of his central European country when the first round of voting starts on Jan. 13.

At the same time, Reuters reported, the 68-year-old populist is facing corruption charges related to more than $2 million in European Union subsidies that he allegedly steered to a construction project near Prague – while concealing his stake in the development.

On Monday, a Prague court acquitted him of the charges – but prosecutors can appeal, the Associated Press wrote.

Babis also enjoys the support of the incumbent Czech president, Milos Zeman. But Zeman’s endorsement might only galvanize the former prime minister’s rivals. “Babis has the advantage of being very well known, but this advantage has a downside: He is also one of the most hated politicians in the Czech Republic,” the Fondation Robert Schuman wrote.

While in power from 2017 to 2021, his political party, the Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) cut taxes as the Czech Republic’s economy grew, explained expats.cz, an English-language local news site. But during the coronavirus pandemic, his government accumulated debts that current Prime Minister Petr Fiala has blamed for causing havoc in the public sector’s finances.

Faced with these two interpretations of Babis, voters might be leaning toward seeing the positive rather than the negative side of the politician. In the run-up to the vote, candidate Danuse Nerudova was leading in the polls, bne IntelliNews reported. But Nerudova’s standing has waned as Babis and retired army general Petr Pavel have surged in the polls.

Speaking to Radio Prague International, Czech political scientist Petr Just argued that Pavel might stand the best chance of defeating Babis. The former general behaves like the above-the-fray statesman who comports with the office of the Czech president, a largely ceremonial position. A third of the electorate is still undecided.

At stake is how a member of the EU leans in the future as major geopolitical moves shake out on the continent. Babis supporter President Zeman held controversial pro-Russia and pro-Chinese views. Babis is skeptical of the value of the EU, too. He and his ANO allies have blasted Czech and EU officials for outlawing fireworks, saying such “elites” were seeking to impose a nanny state on freedom-loving Czechs.

The government under Fiala, meanwhile, has adopted a budget that would devote two percent of the republic’s gross domestic product to the military, a clear statement that the country stands with the West against Russia’s aggression and its enabler, China, according to the Associated Press. Pavel, a political independent and former top NATO commander, has been fighting against Russian influence in Europe for most of his career.

Voters will decide whether their next president will start on a note of controversy or not.

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