Czech agro tycoon emerges as king-maker after election

Reuters

By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet

PRAGUE, Oct 26 (Reuters) - Slovak-born billionaire andpolitical novice Andrej Babis became the king-maker of Czechpolitics on Saturday, after voters angry at graft among thecountry's political establishment made his new party the secondbiggest in parliament.

The mercurial 59-year-old overcame being a non-native Czechspeaker and a hazy political programme to win 18.7 percent ofthe vote in the election, just behind the Social Democrats, whogarnered a disappointing 20.5 percent.

Given rivalries and ill-will among some of the otherparties, it seemed the formation of any new government couldrequire the involvement of a candidate whose campaign consistedof a simple message - that he was not a politician.

"I would not go into politics if the country functionednormally," Babis told Reuters in an interview last month.

"We could be much better off. We used to be among the bestEuropean countries before World War Two and we should takeadvantage of the potential we have."

Czech voters, tired of a long string of graft scandals thathave tarnished the political elite, saw Babis as a self-made manwho earned money from business rather than shady public tenders.

"He is making the same appeal as (Eurosceptic Frank)Stronach in Austria or (Silvio) Berlusconi in Italy, which isthat he is a practical businessman who can get things done, whohas done things in life, and who can run the country like afirm," said Sean Hanley, senior lecturer of Slavonic EastEuropean Studies at University College London.

"He has managed to put himself across as ananti-establishment outsider, but also as fairly moderate andsensible."

Yet the wealthy Babis, a former Communist party member, isalso an unlikely rallying point for Czechs left behind in asociety where the gap between rich and poor has widened sincethe fall of Communism.

Babis first built a career in a Socialist-era chemicalstrading firm during the 1980s, which he parlayed into a multibillion dollar diversified business after the Velvet Revolutionof 1989 that swept the Communists from power.

His companies employ 28,000 people across central Europe,and had a turnover of $6.91 billion last year. Forbes magazineestimates his net worth at $2 billion.

Critics, however, point out that he prospered in the samepost-communist environment that he now criticises. Babis hassaid he would keep ownership of his firms even if he enteredgovernment.

An executive familiar with his empire says Babis, ademanding boss who only sleeps a few hours daily, keeps tightcontrol of all of his businesses.

He also eschews gadgets, and until recently carried around adesk calendar to update his schedule, saying on his Twitteraccount: "Nobody will hack this".

Babis won over voters with his straightforward talk, and hasovercome suspicions surrounding his membership of the CommunistParty as a rank-and-file member, something he has said he did toadvance his career.

He has also admitted to having had contacts with the hatedcommunist secret police, which he said was part of his jobinvolving foreign firms, but he vigorously denies allegations hewas an agent and is contesting them in a Slovak court.

Earlier this year, Babis agreed to buy two nationalnewspapers, raising fears of meddling with the press.

Soon after, he called a reporter to demand an explanation asto why the newspaper did not cover Babis's news conference. Helater apologised and pledged not to influence content, yetseveral senior journalists left.

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