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'Czech Trump' poised to win vote, promises 'new stage'

© AFP / by Jan FLEMR and Jan MARCHAL | Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, chairman of the anti-migrant ANO movement, casts his ballot at a polling station near Prague in an election that could see the 'Czech Trump' take power.

PRAGUE (AFP) - 

A billionaire populist dubbed the "Czech Trump" vowed a new stage in Czech politics as voters head to the polls Saturday in day two of an election expected to sweep him into power.

Betting on his anti-euro, anti-migrant and anti-corruption ticket, ANO (Yes) movement chief Andrej Babis topped opinion polls by a wide margin ahead of the ballot that ends Saturday afternoon.

Babis said he expected his country to "enter a new stage" after voting near Prague on Friday, adding it needed "a government which will really tackle people's problems."

Voting at a school in central Prague, pensioner Vaclav Vachel told AFP that Babis's anti-corruption drive was "the key thing," seemingly unfazed by a fraud indictment Babis faces for alleged abuse of EU subsidies.

"I don't like the EU at all... They're incompetent, those people in Brussels... They're a disaster, this (European Commission chief Jean-Claude) Juncker especially," he added.

Far-right and far-left anti-EU parties are eyeing strong gains which could lead to a fragmented parliament with up to nine parties and few natural coalition allies. Analysts warn of instability and that the Czech Republic's system of liberal democracy could be disturbed.

ANO has already held key posts in the outgoing rocky centre-left coalition under Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, with Babis serving as finance minister from 2014 to May this year.

A 63-year-old Slovak-born chemicals, food and media tycoon, Babis captured around 25-30 percent support in recent surveys, putting ANO ahead of current coalition partner, with the left-wing Social Democrats on just 12.5 percent.

- 'Deep dissatisfaction' -

Parties protesting liberal democracy are poised to win a majority in parliament for the first time since communism fell in 1989, the leading Hospodarske Noviny daily said in a Friday editorial.

"And for the first time we face the threat that an openly xenophobic, extremist movement will earn more than 10 percent" of the vote, it added, pointing to the far-right anti-EU Freedom and Free Democracy (SPD) of Tokyo-born entrepreneur Tomio Okamura who won backing from France's far-right National Front.

The daily called the elections a "turning point... both for the country's internal functioning and its anchoring in the European Union."

Despite their country's economic success, many Czechs who are heavily in debt or working long hours for low wages feel they have been left behind and are turning to anti-system parties to vent frustration, Hospodarske Noviny added.

With joblessness at 3.8 percent in September, the Czech economy which is heavily reliant on car exports is slated to grow by 3.6 percent this year.

While Babis has vowed to steer clear of the eurozone and echoes other eastern EU leaders who accuse Brussels of attempting to limit national sovereignty by imposing rules like migrant quotas, he favours a united Europe and balks at talk of a "Czexit".

- Le Pen endorsement -

Babis's main rival, Social Democrats leader and Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, said Friday he hoped that the future government would ensure that the Czech Republic does not drift to the EU's periphery.

Opinion surveys showed the anti-EU Communists could win 10.5 percent, ahead of Okamura's SPD with 9.5 percent and the anti-establishment Pirates party with 8.5 percent.

Leader of France's far-right National Front Marine Le Pen sent Okamura a letter of support, saying that their parties want to create "a Europe of nations and liberties to which we adhere."

On Saturday, voting for the 200-member lower house of parliament begins at 0600 GMT and ends at 1200 GMT, with no exit polls scheduled and results expected in the evening.

by Jan FLEMR and Jan MARCHAL

© 2017 AFP