Czech tycoon to enter parliament on wave of voter anger

PRAGUE Wed Sep 25, 2013 11:05am EDT

Slovak-born Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, 57, speaks about his anti-corruption movement during an interview with Reuters in Prague November 15, 2011. REUTERS/Petr Josek

Slovak-born Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, 57, speaks about his anti-corruption movement during an interview with Reuters in Prague November 15, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Petr Josek

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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babis has built up the biggest Czech food, agriculture and chemicals group but got so upset with politicians in the process that he now aims to enter parliament himself in next month's election.

His ANO (YES) movement has shot up the opinion polls, and the tycoon, a Communist Party member in totalitarian Czechoslovakia who then made it onto the Forbes rich list, stands a strong chance of becoming a political force.

The center-left Social Democrats, in opposition since 2006, are set to win the largest share of votes on October 25-26, but will fall short of majority and will need to look for partners to back them in parliament.

Babis, an energetic 59-year-old, set up ANO (originally standing for "Association of Dissatisfied Citizens") in 2011, in protest against corruption.

"I am not a politician, I am a businessman," Babis told Reuters in an interview. "I would not go into politics if the country functioned normally. I pay huge taxes here and the state is not giving back."

The election was called after the center-right government, that had been credited for trying to clean up public spending and facilitating corruption investigations, itself collapsed in June in a scandal involving alleged bribery and spying.

With slogans including "We are not politicians - we work hard" and "We are an able nation - we are only ruled by klutzes," ANO's anti-establishment approach has paid off.

One recent poll gave it 11 percent, and another 14 percent, putting it in third place.

Yet Babis is an unlikely rallying point for those who fell left behind in society. He built his empire, more than 200 firms, in the post-communist environment that he criticizes.

His Agrofert group, which employs about 28,000 in companies across central Europe, had a turnover of $6.91 billion last year and Forbes puts his net worth at $2 billion.

An executive familiar with his empire says Babis keeps tight control of all his businesses. At least until recently he carried around a desk calendar to update his schedule, saying on his Twitter account: "Nobody will hack this".

NOT BERLUSCONI

Babis says his party is centrist and that he wants to depoliticize the state administration, collect taxes more efficiently and reduce sales tax on medicines, food and books. He also favors more direct democracy.

"The big problem is in governing the country. If it was led properly, more taxes would be collected, waste and corruption would be dealt with," he said.

Babis, who mixes his native Slovak with his adopted Czech language, has encountered criticism for his membership of the Communist party in the 1980s.

In the decade before the Iron Curtain collapsed, he was making a career at a state firm that imported chemicals, and spent a few years in Morocco before he started growing his own empire from scratch in the 1990s.

He has admitted that he had contact with Communist counter-espionage but denied he would ever willingly cooperate with the secret police.

Babis is about to complete the acquisition of a major newspaper publisher, Mafra, which prints two national dailies, prompting some staff to quit, despite his promise not to interfere with editorial content.

"We are buying Mafra for big bucks, I am not silly enough to start influencing it and thus destroy the investment," Babis said.

He plans to keep the papers and his companies even if he enters parliament. He said he would only give up management and board posts at his group if he joined a government.

"People talk about Berlusconi all the time and what did he do? He had sex scandals, evaded tax and cheated the state. I do not, and will not do things like that."

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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