Czech ruling party sees surprise defeat in election, imperiling Babis

Populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis had been expected to win the Czech elections, but opposition coalitions earned enough votes to form a majority.

Bernadett Szabo
Czech Prime Minister and leader of ANO party Andrej Babis attends a news conference at the party's election headquarters after the country's parliamentary election in Prague, October 9, 2021.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis' centrist party on Saturday narrowly lost the Czech Republic's parliamentary election, a surprise development that could mean the end of the populist billionaire's reign in power.

The two-day election to fill 200 seats in the lower house of the Czech Republic’s parliament took place shortly after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reported details of Mr. Babis’ overseas financial dealings in a project dubbed the “Pandora Papers.” Mr. Babis has denied wrongdoing.

With almost all the the votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said Together, a liberal-conservative three-party coalition, captured 27.8% of the vote, beating Mr. Babis' ANO (Yes) party, which won 27.1%.

In another blow to the populists, another center-left liberal coalition of the Pirate Party and STAN, a group of mayors, received 15.6% of the vote to finish third, the statistics office reported.

“The two democratic coalitions have gained a majority and have a chance to form a majority government,” said Petr Fiala, Together's leader and its candidate for prime minister.

Five opposition parties with policies closer to the European Union’s mainstream compared with the populist Mr. Babis put aside their differences in this election to create the two coalitions, seeking to oust the euroskeptic prime minister from power.

The result means “an absolute change of the politics in the Czech Republic,” analyst Michal Klima told Czech public television. “It stabilizes the country’s position in the West camp.”

“It’s a huge defeat for [Mr. Babis],” he added.

The major anti-migrant and anti-Muslim force in the Czech Republic, the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, finished fourth with 9.6% support.

Both the Social Democrats and the Communists, the country’s traditional parliamentary parties, failed to win seats in parliament for the first time since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Mr. Babis has had a turbulent term featuring numerous scandals, but all public polls before the vote had favored his ANO party to win the election.

“We didn't expect to lose,” Mr. Babis said. “We accept that.”

He still declared the election results “excellent.”

Prior to the vote, Mr. Babis led a minority coalition government of ANO and the Social Democrats in the Eastern European country of 10.7 million people, which is a member of both the European Union and NATO. He has also governed with the support of the maverick Communists.

The leader of the strongest party usually gets a chance to form a new government. President Milos Zeman didn't immediately comment but previously indicated that he will first appoint the leader of the winning party, not the winning coalition, to try to form a new government, which would be Mr. Babis. The two leaders will meet on Sunday.

“We're the strongest party,” Mr. Babis said. “If the president asks me to create a government, I'll open the negotiations about it.”

Any new government has to win a parliamentary confidence vote to rule, however, and Mr. Babis and his potential partner, the Freedom party, don't have enough support for that.

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