PRAGUE -- Andrej Babis, the second-richest man in the Czech Republic, leads a party that’s topping the polls ahead of the country’s national election on Oct. 20-21. If the party stays ahead, Babis could be the next prime minister.
The billionaire’s background and views on issues such as refugees have inspired comparisons to President Trump. Babis has also spawned fears among pro-European politicians in the still-young democracy that the Czech Republic could follow Hungary and Poland in a turn away from the rule of law and toward authoritarianism.
Babis sat down for an interview with Washington Post Berlin Bureau Chief Griff Witte at the politician’s office on the outskirts of Prague on Oct. 5. The following are excerpts of their conversation.
Washington Post: Your party is at the top of the polls, which would put you in position to be prime minister. Why do you think voters are coming to your party?
Andrej Babis: They are saying that I'm a danger to democracy in this country, which of course is ridiculous. I'm a danger to this corrupt system. [Establishment politicians] never had a vision of the country. They spent money, they were stealing money, there was lots of corruption.
WP: And why are voters looking to a billionaire like yourself, someone who has so many financial interests across the entire breadth of this country, including in the media?
AB: I'm breaking the political system and also the media system.
WP: If you're going to be prime minister and also own one of the largest media companies in this country, doesn't that create an inherent conflict of interest?
AB: I don't have this company anymore. I put it in a trust.
WP: Will you ask that the investigation [into your business dealings] be ended if you become prime minister?
AB: I cannot ask. It's independent.
WP: In terms of geopolitics, do you see more of an alliance with leaders like [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Emmanuel] Macron, or do you see more of an alliance with Poland and Hungary? It seems that people like Merkel and Macron have a vision for a much more tightly integrated Europe.
AB: Macron should concentrate on France. He promised to lower the taxes. He has a lot of unemployment. He should first do something for France, and then maybe for Europe.
WP: What would you like to see for Europe?
AB: Europe is always producing laws and limitations and regulations and we don't need more integration. We need safety. We need to really stop this illegal immigration and we need to fight against terrorists.
WP: Do you see your story as similar to Trump's? You’re a very successful businessman who has turned to politics.
AB: I was never bankrupt.
WP: In other ways, though? Besides the bankruptcy, do you see any similarity there?
AB: He’s a businessman, he decides. And so of course the advantage of the American system is that it's a majority system so he can decide.
WP: I was just in Germany covering the elections and there was a surprising result. Merkel did significantly less well than people expected and the far right did better. What is happening in European politics that explains those results?
AB: What's happening? It's just the reaction of Germans to the immigration policy of Madame Merkel.
WP: You think it was a mistake the way that Merkel handled the refugee issue?
AB: Of course.
WP: How so?
AB: We are the only continent in the world which is accepting immigrants without any ID or passports. Europe is not capable to solve the problem.
WP: But the EU relocation plan was an attempt to impose order on this very disordered process and to make sure that there was a shared burden across the 28 members.
AB: Shared burden? No. It was the stupidity of Madame Merkel. All these people were waiting in Turkey and hoping to return home and she has invited them.
WP: The Czech Republic has accepted 12 people under the European refugee relocation program. That seems like an awfully small number.
AB: It's a principle. It's not possible that somebody decides on our side without asking us. We have a lot of terrorist attacks and the people are afraid. There are constantly a lot of crimes in Germany, sexual crimes and so on.
WP: So you don't want Syrians here?
AB: No, why? We have here Ukrainians and Vietnamese and Slovaks and Russians. We cannot save the planet.
WP: And you don't want [the Czech Republic] to be a multicultural society?
AB: Every country has a different storyline. I have been working five years in Morocoo. I couldn't eat the pork meat and my wife couldn't wear the t-shirt during Ramadan. So they have their culture and in Europe we have our culture.
WP: But there's a humanitarian catastrophe.
AB: Nobody is coming for humanitarian reasons now. Everybody is coming for economic reasons. Now the people are coming from black Africa. We are Czech politicians who take care of Czech people.
WP: But doesn't Europe only work if there's burden sharing, if there is a shared responsibility, on big challenges like migration?
AB: Every country in Europe is fighting for its own interest, ok?
WP: So every country should just look out for its own interests and there is no such thing as a collective interest?
AB: You are coming from the United States, you said, no? [Laughs] So ask Mr. Trump.
Katerina Santurova in Prague and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.