The centrist ANO movement led by populist Andrej Babis stormed to victory in the Czech Republic’s parliamentary election in a vote that shifted the country decisively to the right and paved the way for the eurosceptic billionaire to become its next Prime Minister.
With all votes counted, the Czech Statistics Office said ANO had won by a landslide, capturing 29.6 per cent of the vote, or 78 of the 200 seats in the lower house of Parliament.
“It’s a huge success,” 63-year-old Mr Babis – who some regard as the Czech equivalent to Donald Trump – told supporters and journalists at his headquarters in Prague.
Mr Babis is the country’s second-richest man, with a media empire including two major newspapers and a popular radio station.
Although he was a finance minister in the outgoing government until May, many Czechs regard him as a maverick outsider with the business acumen to shake up the system.
Since the leader of the strongest party is generally able to form a new government, Mr 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. He denies all allegations of wrongdoing.
The charges could make it difficult for Mr Babis to find the coalition partners he needs to build a parliamentary majority, as several parties have indicated they will not work alongside him in government.
He did not immediately say which parties he preferred but has invited all parties that won seats for talks.
In a blow to the country’s political elite, four of the top five vote-getting parties had challenged the traditional political mainstream.
Some have campaigned on a ticket of opposing mass immigration and perceived Islamification and have attacked the country’s memberships of the EU and Nato.
Mr Babis’s anti-establishment rhetoric has convinced many he can fix the country’s problems, from graft to transportation, with parallels being drawn with Mr Trumps’ “Make America Great Again!” slogan.
A record nine parties won seats after all ballots were counted.
The opposition Conservative Civic Democrats came in a distant second with 11.3 per cent of the vote, or 25 seats.
The Social Democrats, the senior party in the outgoing government, captured just 7.3 per cent – 15 seats – while the Christian Democrats, part of the ruling coalition, won only 5.8 per cent support or 10 seats.
“It’s a voting hurricane,” analyst Michal Klima told Czech television, referring to the poor results for the mainstream parties.
The Pirate Party won seats for the first time, coming in third with 10.8 per cent of the vote, while the most radical anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU party, the Freedom and Direct Democracy, was in fourth place with 10.6 per cent support. The two parties won 22 seats each.
Mr Babis played down his eurosceptic 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.”
Some experts predict a clearer shift to the right for the Czech Republic if Mr Babis works out a coalition government with Tomio Okamura, head of the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, who wants to ban Islam and organise a referendum to exit the EU. He has also urged Czechs to walk pigs near mosques.
“We want to stop any Islamisation of the Czech Republic, we push for zero tolerance of migration,” Mr Okamura told reporters after the news of the result came through.
“Should (Babis) join forces with Okamura, the Czech Republic would be facing difficult times,” Mr Klima warned.
Additional reporting by AP