Embattled PM seen winning Czech EU vote amid low turnout

Prague (AFP) –


Czech polling stations opened Friday for the European Parliament election, with the party of embattled billionaire prime minister set to win amid expected low turnout and despite protests against his cabinet.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis is facing criminal charges over EU subsidy fraud and an EU probe into his dual role as politician and entrepreneur.

In recent weeks, thousands of people have rallied against Babis and his newly-appointed justice minister on fears she might try to clear him.

But a poll of more than 2,100 voters by the Median agency in March-May showed Babis's ANO (YES) party may get over 25 percent, beating the right-wing Civic Democrats and the anti-establishment Pirates with 14 percent each.

The Czechs rank among the most eurosceptic EU members with 24 percent saying they would vote to leave the EU in this spring's Eurobarometer poll, the highest share of all member countries except Britain.

Babis has been running under the campaign slogan of "Strong Czechia," conveying a focus on national interests that appeals to many voters.

The EU "should stop telling us what we should do, that's the only thing that interests me," an elderly bespectacled woman voting ANO in the southern city of Pelhrimov told AFP, insisting on anonymity.

"They have banned our stinky cheese and spread butter but it's our business really. What will they ban next? Pilsner beer?" she added, referring to the EU's strictness on product labelling.

ANO won the last general election in 2017 and formed a minority cabinet with the leftwing Social Democrats, backed by the Communists for a parliamentary majority.

"It is important for ANO to maintain the image of a victorious party," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Prague's Charles University, told AFP.

"Babis needs the victory for psychological reasons," he said, adding that a victory would make it easier for the premier to wave aside the protests.

Tomas Lebeda, an analyst at Palacky University in the eastern city of Olomouc, agreed the stakes were high for Babis, who is against adopting the euro.

"He is expected to win by a broad margin. If it doesn't happen, some people may start to ask if his position is as strong as it seems," Lebeda told AFP.

- Turnout matters -

In a campaign focussed on the defence of national interests rather than the importance of being part of the EU, parties are trying to get Czechs to vote, following a paltry 18.2-percent turnout in the last European election in 2014.

"The campaign suggests this is a second-rate vote for us, you don't really feel there is a campaign," said Mlejnek.

"Turnout will matter -- it may affect the result quite significantly."

Casting his ballot, Babis himself called on voters to come to the polls.

"We think this is the most important European Parliament vote which affects our lives, all people in our country," he told reporters.

"If we're not interested, we can't complain," said Pelhrimov voter Jaroslav Vitku, an insurance company manager voting for the Civic Democrats.

Low turnout may harm the far-right SPD movement of Tokyo-born lawmaker Tomio Okamura, which is promoting a "Czexit" and has 10-percent backing in the Median poll.

"Their anti-EU voters may not want to come to the polls. And one third of the parties running are eurosceptic so they will steal their votes," said Lebeda.

Polling stations in the country of 10.6 million people will close at 2000 GMT before reopening from 0600 GMT to 1200 GMT on Saturday.