Czech finance minister's party wins regional elections

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The centrist ANO party of Finance Minister Andrej Babis won the Czech Republic’s regional elections on Saturday, putting the billionaire businessman in pole position for a parliamentary election due in October next year.

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ANO took 21.1 percent of the vote across 13 regions of the EU member country, results from over 95 percent of districts showed, in an election for regional assemblies that control healthcare, schools, transport and other services.

That put ANO, a party Babis set up in 2011 as an anti-corruption movement with a center-right economic agenda, ahead of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s center-left Social Democrats who got 15.3 percent of the vote. The results confirmed Babis as a serious candidate for the premiership.

The election -- the first regional vote ANO contended -- is unlikely to shake the government, which includes the two main rivals and a smaller centrist party, the Christian Democrats.

“We want regions without corruption, that is our main aim,” Babis said. “People have long been disgusted with politics, that is the reason why we set up our movement. We want to do politics differently.”

ANO took the most votes in nine out of the 13 regions, while the Social Democrats won in two, after securing nine regions in 2012. Two regions were won by smaller parties.

The Communist party won 10.6 percent and the center-right Civic Democrats won 9.4 percent. The capital Prague, traditionally a right-leaning city, did not vote in this election due to its status as a city rather than a region.

Sobotka conceded defeat, saying it was a message for the party to search for new program ideas.

“It is clear people voted for change in the regions,” he said.

Turnout, traditionally much lower than in national election, was 34.3 percent, from 36.9 percent four years ago.

ANO has thin ideological roots, and its main message is efficient management of public affairs.

The Slovak-born Babis, 62, has positioned himself as a fighter against corruption. He has overseen a drop in budget deficits thanks to a pick-up in growth, record low interest rates and focus on better tax collection.

But his vast business interests -- he owns a conglomerate of over 250 companies from farming to chemical industry and media -- make him the target of criticism for frequent conflict of interest. He denies abusing his position.

ANO also won the strongest position in the first round of election for 27 out of 81 seats in the Senate. Partial results showed ANO will have 14 candidates in the run-off round on Oct 14-15 versus eight Social Democrats.

Editing by Stephen Powell