Czech populist billionaire Babis vows to run for president

PRAGUE (AP) — Populist billionaire Andrej Babis has announced his intention to run for the largely ceremonial post of the Czech Republic’s president.

Babis, the controversial former prime minister, made his announcement on Sunday evening in a television broadcast. He said his only goal is “for people to have a better life.”

Babis spoke after meeting his ally, President Milos Zeman, whose second and final term expires in January.

The first round of the presidential election is scheduled for Jan 13-14. The second round between the top two finishers will take place two weeks later.

Babis currently faces trial in a $2 million fraud case involving European Union subsidies.

The case involves a farm known as the Stork’s Nest that received EU subsidies after its ownership was transferred from the Babis-owned Agrofert conglomerate of around 250 companies to Babis’ family members. Later, Agrofert again took ownership of the farm.

The subsidies were meant for medium- and small-sized businesses, and Agrofert wouldn’t have been eligible for them. Agrofert later returned the subsidy.

It’s not clear when a verdict can be expected.

Babis denies any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said the allegations against him were politically motivated.

Babis’ centrist ANO movement stormed Czech politics in 2013, finishing a surprise second in the parliamentary election with an anti-corruption message to become a junior partner in the government with Babis as finance minister. Four years later he won the election and became premier.

A quarter of a million people took to the streets — the biggest such demonstrations since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution — twice in 2019 to demand that Babis step down due to his scandals, including the conflict of interest over EU subsidies involving his former business empire.

Babis’ movement lost the parliamentary election last year in October. A coalition of five parties formed a new government, and ANO ended up in opposition.

Before the election, he was hit by yet another scandal that linked him and hundreds of other wealthy people to offshore accounts in findings by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists dubbed the “Pandora Papers."

Babis denies any wrongdoing.

The Slovak-born Babis also faces charges in Slovakia that he collaborated with the communist-era secret police in Czechoslovakia before the 1989 anti-communist Velvet Revolution. He also denies that.

Babis will be among the front-runners in the presidential election, along with Army Gen. Petr Pavel, former chairman of NATO’s military committee, and former university rector Danuse Nerudova.