The acquittal of a former Czech prime minister of corruption charges may boost his presidential hopes, but has likely come too late.
In 2021, Pandora Papers revelations that then Czech Prime Minister Babiš put 22 million US dollars into shell companies to buy 16 properties in southern France, including a chateau, were believed to have at least partially contributed to costing him a new term in office.
“I don’t own any property in France,” said Babiš at the time, denying any wrongdoing. “These are nasty, false accusations that are meant to influence the election. That’s all.”
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The election in question was a parliamentary vote held just a week after the allegations emerged, an election which Babiš’s ANO party was expected to win: it held a five per cent lead in most opinion polls.
Instead, the result was a surprise. A coalition of three parties, known as Spolu (Together) narrowly defeated ANO.
In a snap poll taken shortly after polling stations closed, eight per cent of those who did not vote for ANO said that they had planned to do so until the Pandora Papers leaks changed their mind.
Little more than a year later, the situation has somewhat reversed.
The first round of voting in Czechia’s presidential election, set to take place this coming weekend, was given a twist on January 9 when Babiš was cleared of fraud charges in a corruption case involving almost two million euros worth of European Union subsidies.
Babiš, who served as Czechia’s prime minister from 2017-21, is amongst the front runners for the presidential vote, along with Danuše Nerudová, a liberal former university rector, and Petr Pavel, an equally liberal retired army general.
The most recent polls show Babiš narrowly winning the first round, but well short of the 50 per cent he would need to avoid a run-off against the second placed candidate. In such a run-off, polls suggest Babiš would lose – by a wide margin – against either Nerudová or Pavel.
That, of course, was before Monday’s acquittal. While the prosecution can appeal, the not guilty verdict may provide a boost for Babiš’s presidential ambitions.
“I’m really glad that we have an independent judiciary and the court confirmed what I have been saying from the beginning: that I am innocent and haven’t done anything illegal,” Babiš said after the verdict had been delivered.
Babiš had been accused of hiding his ownership of a firm which received EU subsidies intended for small and medium-sized businesses. A court in Prague said that it had not been proven that what Babiš did was a crime, as the court was convinced there was no intention to create a fiction in order to receive the subsidy.
Pavel, the former general who was chairman of NATO’s military committee – the highest rank ever held by a Czech in the alliance – called on Czechs to give their own verdict on Babiš at the ballot box.
“I understand that the court’s decision angered many of you, but let’s keep a cool head,” he said. “Instead of criticising the court, let’s, as responsible citizens, present Andrej Babiš with an election defeat. That’s what we have democracy for.”
Danuše Nerudová meanwhile said that Czechia has an independent judiciary and the verdict must be respected.
However, she added that, “for Babiš, this changes nothing. He is in politics for his own interests, something which subverts democracy.”
The battle for second place
Despite his small lead in the first-round polls, Babiš trails both Nerudová and Pavel by 19 points in hypothetical second-round matchups. Any impact of the acquittal is likely to come too late.
The real contest this weekend will therefore be between Nerudová and Pavel for the second slot in the runoff; polling suggests that Pavel currently has the edge.
Both are unofficially backed by the ruling Spolu coalition and have very similar programmes: both are committed to a wealth of liberal causes, including same-sex marriage and adoption. They have broadly avoided attacking each other during the campaign, although Nerudová did last week accuse Pavel of sexism when he said he would offer her a role as an accounting advisor in his presidential administration.
“So that’s what he thinks of women,” said Nerudová. “Only good as accountants.”
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