The Rise of the Populist Billionaire

By Salil Jajodia

This week the second richest man in the Czech Republic was elected to be the next Czech Prime Minister. Andrej Babiš, worth $4 billion according to Forbes, founded his centrist party ANO (meaning Yes in Czech) in 2012 on an anti-immigration and anti-corruption platform.  His party won close to 30% of the vote, far exceeding the 11.3% won by the next most popular party, the Civic Democratic Party. Babiš’s win heralds a major change for a country generally dominated by the Social and Christian Democrats, and can be seen as part of a global wake of anti-establishment populist wins (ex. Donald Trump and Narendra Modi).

ANO failed to acquire a 101-seat majority that is necessary for the adminstration to directly form, however is already in the process of formulating a coalition. Given that Babiš is a former finance minster that many traditional parties tried to oust, this coalition process could prove difficult.

Additionally, Babiš has been the centre of controversy regarding his wealth for many years now, making his election quite contentious.  Earlier this year he was forced to resign from his position as finance minister as a result of allegations of tax fraud, and of being a communist-era police agent.  He made most of his fortune in the wake of the 1989 Velvet Revolution when there was a major transfer of power and resources.  It was during this privatization process that Babiš took private control of a nationalized company through a series of deals that remain controversial.  Using his billions, he’s managed to take control of the two of the largest newspapers in the country in addition to an Internet portal and various radio channels.

Moreover, Babiš’s party is quite skeptical of the EU and its overarching power, which is in line other anti-EU sentiment across Europe (ex. Brexit).  Although he says the Czech Republic will not pull out of the EU, he promises new propositions to the Council on issues such as immigration, which is a major focal point for recent elections across Europe.  Many voters believe him to be a no-nonsense politician who can use his power to constructively “run the state like a business” (which is what he says he will do).

Looking to the future, we can only wait and see how elections in other parts of the world turn out, and whether populist rhetoric manages to win out again.  This is especially interesting considering the role that social media now plays in political support and mobilization. The interaction of these leaders on the global level will most likely be quite different from the traditional establishment politics we’ve seen, and how this will span out may shape international relations in the near future.

Filed in: Featured content, International

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