PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs voted on Friday in an election expected to hand power to businessman Andrej Babis who has won popular support by pledging to sweep aside traditional parties, boost investment and keep out refugees, but faces a criminal probe for suspected fraud.
The central European country has enjoyed rapid economic growth, a balanced budget and the lowest unemployment in the European Union, but opinion polls nevertheless show strong voter support for Babis’s ANO movement and other protest parties.
Founded and tightly controlled by the 63-year-old billionaire, ANO - which means ‘yes’ in Czech - has won support from both right and left with promises to cut taxes, turf out corrupt politicians and bring business-style efficiency to government.
“We want to form a government and show people that government can work differently to what they are used to. We would be (more) in touch with them,” Babis said after voting in the Prague suburb where he lives.
Babis’s support has weathered investigation into tax strategies at his empire of food, chemicals, farming and media -- worth an estimated $4 billion -- that he owned until moving it to a trust fund this year.
He has also been charged by police with fraud on suspicion that he hid ownership of a farm and a conference centre so it could receive a 2 million euro subsidy in 2008. He denies any wrongdoing.
ANO has maintained its rhetoric of opposition to the ruling system despite serving as a junior partner in the outgoing government along with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s centre-left Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats.
Final surveys before a polling blackout began on Tuesday gave ANO about 25-27 percent support, at least twice that of the Social Democrats.
“Previous governments kept saying what needs to be changed but did nothing,” said Jarmila, a 66-year old former teacher in Prague who refused to give her last name. “He is rational and can explain things.”
Czech elections are spread over two days. Voting began on Friday at 2 p.m. (1200 GMT) and will end at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Although immigration to the Czech Republic is virtually non-existent, fear of it has played a big part in the election campaign, with most parties pledging to fight any attempts by the European Union to force the Czechs to accept refugees distributed across the bloc.
The anti-immigrant mood mirrors similar trends in neighbouring countries. Parties opposed to immigration did well in Germany’s election in September and in Austria’s last week, and have fed scepticism towards the EU across the 28-nation bloc.
Babis’s swipes at Brussels have raised concern that he might lead the country into a more confrontational relationship with the EU, emulating the right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary.
Babis opposes more EU integration and euro adoption, but has also spoken of the benefits of EU membership and says the Czech Republic should play a bigger role in reforming the bloc.
Analysts say the election may lead to a similar coalition to the outgoing government but led by ANO, which would mean no big change in a foreign policy.
A deal with ANO’s current partners, or with centre-right parties, may run up against their demands that Babis personally stays out of the cabinet because of the police charges.
A number of voters in Prague expressed distrust of Babis, who has been fighting allegations he had cooperated with communist-era secret police.
“For me this election is about our stance on the European Union, refugees and is mainly (a chance to vote) against Mr. Babis,” said Gabriela Kijova, 23, after voting for the small Pirate Party in central Prague.
President Milos Zeman said on Friday he would ask the leader of the biggest party to lead talks on a new government. He said he would allow a month for negotiations before he calls a session of the new parliament, which is the trigger for the departure of the outgoing administration.
There is an outside chance that Babis may form a minority government supported by the Communists and the far-right, anti-EU Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD), which saw its support jump in the final opinion polls.
Such a tie-up would be negative for investors and pose questions over policies towards the EU.
Additional reporting by Jiri Skacel, Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Gareth Jones