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November 17, 2017

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Populist billionaire’s party wins big in Czech Republic

PRAGUE — The centrist ANO 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 euroskeptic billionaire to become its next prime minister.

With virtually all votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said Saturday that ANO won in a landslide with 29.7 percent of the vote.

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

Although Babis 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 in Parliament's lower house 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 majority of parliament's 200 seats. He didn't immediately say which parties he preferred.

Babis is the county's second-richest man, with a media empire including two major newspapers and a popular radio station.

In a blow to the country's traditional political elite, four of the top five vote-getting parties Saturday were ones that have challenged the traditional political mainstream. Some have exploited fears of immigration and Islam and have been attacking the country's memberships in the EU and NATO.

The opposition conservative Civic Democrats came in a distant second, with 11.3 percent of the vote, the strongest mainstream party. The Social Democrats, the senior party in the outgoing government that won the 2013 election, captured only 7.3 percent of the vote Saturday. And the Christian Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, won only 5.8 percent support.

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

The Pirate Party won seats for the first time, coming in third with 10.8 percent of the vote while the most radical anti-migration, anti-Muslim, anti-EU party, the Freedom and Direct Democracy, was in fourth place with 10.6 percent support.

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

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

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 if Babis worked out a coalition with Tomio Okamura, head of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, who wants to ban Islam and organize a referendum to exit the EU.

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

A record nine parties and groupings made it into Parliament, some just barely over the 5 percent threshold. Those included the Communists, who got 7.8 percent of the vote, the pro-EU conservatives with 5.3 percent and a group of mayors who won 5.2 percent support.

Populist billionaire's party wins big in Czech Republic

By KAREL JANICEK, Associated Press

PRAGUE (AP) — The centrist ANO 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 euroskeptic billionaire to become its next prime minister.

With virtually all votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said Saturday that ANO won in a landslide with 29.7 percent of the vote.

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

Although Babis 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 in Parliament's lower house 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 majority of parliament's 200 seats. He didn't immediately say which parties he preferred.

Babis is the county's second-richest man, with a media empire including two major newspapers and a popular radio station.

In a blow to the country's traditional political elite, four of the top five vote-getting parties Saturday were ones that have challenged the traditional political mainstream. Some have exploited fears of immigration and Islam and have been attacking the country's memberships in the EU and NATO.

The opposition conservative Civic Democrats came in a distant second, with 11.3 percent of the vote, the strongest mainstream party. The Social Democrats, the senior party in the outgoing government that won the 2013 election, captured only 7.3 percent of the vote Saturday. And the Christian Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, won only 5.8 percent support.

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

The Pirate Party won seats for the first time, coming in third with 10.8 percent of the vote while the most radical anti-migration, anti-Muslim, anti-EU party, the Freedom and Direct Democracy, was in fourth place with 10.6 percent support.

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

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

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 if Babis worked out a coalition with Tomio Okamura, head of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, who wants to ban Islam and organize a referendum to exit the EU.

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

A record nine parties and groupings made it into Parliament, some just barely over the 5 percent threshold. Those included the Communists, who got 7.8 percent of the vote, the pro-EU conservatives with 5.3 percent and a group of mayors who won 5.2 percent support.