Czech mogul PM Babis, contested but confident

Prague (AFP) –


Haunted by his past, billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis is holding on to power despite facing police charges and the biggest anti-government protests the Czech Republic has seen in 30 years.

Around 283,000 people rallied in Prague on Sunday, demanding that the populist tycoon resign over his murky business dealings.

"One feels that the more money you pump in, the more upset the people are. This is a weird situation," Babis said referring to his government's social spending.

Dubbed the "Czech version of Trump" by Forbes, the wiry, grey-haired, Slovak-born farming, media and chemicals mogul is the Czech Republic's second-richest man.

He set up the populist ANO (Yes) party in 2011 as a political outsider determined to lure voters with promises of clean politics in the EU country of 10.6 million that is plagued by corruption.

ANO entered parliament two years later and won a general election in 2017, but Babis himself has been dogged by allegations of wrongdoing.

He served as finance minister from 2014 to 2017 when he was ousted after leaked recordings showed he had influenced reporters working for newspapers he owns.

The 64-year-old is facing police charges filed last year over a two-million-euro ($2.25 million) EU subsidy scam.

A recent audit by the European Commission ruled that he has a conflict of interest as a politician and entrepreneur, an allegation which Babis has denied.

He also denies allegations that he served as a Communist secret police agent in the 1980s, something he calls a smear campaign.

In an emotional speech to journalists last year, he exclaimed: "I will never step down, never. May everyone remember that!"

- 'Family Business' -

Despite the allegations, voter support for ANO has hovered around 30 percent.

With Babis pledging to fight corruption and manage the state "like a family business", ANO scored 29.6 percent support the 2017 election, enabling it to form a minority coalition with the leftwing Social Democrats.

But Babis, haunted by his past, took a year to cobble together a viable coalition, finally leaning on support from the Communist Party whose member he had once been.

Babis, a pro-European politician who opposes the Czech Republic adopting the euro, made his fortune as founder and owner of the sprawling Agrofert food, chemicals and media group.

- Richer than Trump -

Babis has a net worth of $3.5 billion (3.1 billion euros) according to the 2019 Forbes list of global billionaires, making him richer than US President Donald Trump, who is worth $3.1 billion on the same list.

Thanks to a father who he claims "co-founded foreign trade in Slovakia" under communism, Babis grew up on the road, attending elementary school in Paris and high school in Geneva.

His work ethic and knack for making money came young.

"I worked since age 15, delivered milk, unloaded parcels at the station, did decorating, built weekend houses, all to make money," he once said.

After earning an economics degree, he followed in his father's footsteps and worked as a sales representative in Morocco in 1985 to 1991.

When the Velvet Revolution toppled totalitarian rule in 1989, Babis returned home to see his country split into two states and to find himself jobless.

Born on September 2, 1954 in Bratislava, Babis lives with his second wife Monika, 20 years his junior and mother of two of his children.

The former tennis and volleyball player also has two children with his ex-wife -- including Andrej Jr, who made the headlines last year as his father allegedly sent him to Crimea against his will to hamper investigations in the EU subsidy fraud case.

"I'm a wealthy man. I have made almost all of my dreams come true. I have earned billions with honest work," Babis once said.