The Czech Republic’s two-day election, which began Friday when polls opened at 2 p.m., makes Babis one of the first elected officials named in the Pandora Papers to face a reckoning with voters.
The records indicated that Babis allegedly used shell companies to purchase a $22 million French chateau in 2009. The story was still atop the public debate on the eve of the election.
Babis has denied that he did anything “illegal or wrong” and has said that he “paid all the taxes.” He also has sought to discredit the Pandora Papers’ revelations as part of a domestic political smear campaign. But the revelations have put him on the defensive.
Czech police vowed to investigate the prime minister and all other Czech citizens named in the Pandora Papers. Journalists headed to the chateau in southern France to report live from its gate.
The Pandora Papers expose vast reaches of the secretive offshore system used to hide billions of dollars from tax authorities, creditors, criminal investigators and — in 14 cases involving current country leaders — citizens around the world.
The revelations include more than $100 million spent by King Abdullah II of Jordan on luxury homes in Malibu, Calif., and other locations; millions of dollars in property and cash secretly owned by Babis and the leaders of four African nations; and a waterfront home in Monaco acquired by a Russian woman who gained considerable wealth after she reportedly had a child with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the Czech Republic, the controversy has re-energized the country’s opposition parties.
They have sought to portray the prime minister’s purchase as part of a broader pattern of shady business dealings that have drawn the attention of E.U. and Czech investigators. Babis’s conglomerate, Agrofert, accounts for a sizable portion of the country’s economic output and is in control of several of the country’s biggest media outlets.
A top opposition politician, Vit Rakusan, said in a TV debate Wednesday: “Either we will remain a liberal democracy, or we will follow Orban” — a reference to Hungary’s far-right leader, Viktor Orban.
Orban has overseen Hungary’s increasingly nationalistic and hard-line government.
Many Babis opponents fear he could push the Czech Republic in a similar direction, potentially forming an alliance with the country’s far-right party to stay in power.
Last month, Orban made clear when he joined the Czech prime minister on the campaign trail that he sees an ally in Babis.
Some analysts argue that concerns over Czech democracy are overblown, partly because Czech institutions remain stronger and more independent than their Hungarian counterparts.
But the opposition warnings have resonated with voters who are afraid of another mandate for Babis, who has been in power since late 2017.
“I try not to think about it,” said Alela Hyxova, 44, as she picked up her child from a kindergarten in Prague on Thursday. “I’m so worried, because the polls show that he may win again.”
Czech election laws ban polls in the days before voting. The last one was conducted just before the Pandora Papers were made public.
That means nobody knows whether the Pandora Papers will become the Czech equivalent of an October surprise or whether voters will shrug it off.
Since publication Sunday, “the Pandora Papers have been the No. 1 topic,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University Prague. But he and other analysts cautioned that the electoral impact could be overestimated.
“Most people do not know what ‘offshore’ is,” said Milos Brunclik, a political analyst at the Czech Republic’s Charles University, referring to traditional havens for shell companies and potential tax avoidance.
Babis has relied on a political base of mostly rural and older voters and pensioners — both groups that have significantly benefited from public spending programs in recent years and are unlikely to turn against him.
Babis is also being backed by the Czech Republic’s president, Milos Zeman, who has already suggested that he could appoint Babis as the next prime minister even if Babis does not hold a parliamentary majority.
Major uncertainty, however, revolves around the president’s health. Some Czech media reports have suggested that he is gravely ill, raising questions about whether he will remain in office. The president’s office on Thursday referred to a statement, saying that Zeman’s physician “did not recommend that the president vote publicly” and that “the President’s future program will be modified.” The statement did not address the reports about Zeman’s potential illness.
The center-right SPOLU alliance — the biggest bloc opposed to Babis — tried to win over the last undecided voters in Prague on Thursday. Even as TV stations and radio networks continued to focus on the Pandora Papers, they were not widely seen as central to the election.
“I don’t think it’s going to change the minds of his voters,” said Julius, a market vendor who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, citing privacy concerns. “Babis has already gotten his claws into them.”
Ondrej Kolar, a Prague district mayor opposed to the prime minister, said voters who “don’t have a hint of what’s going on in this [Pandora Papers] case just take his explanations for granted.”
Babis has mocked the reporting by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which shared the trove of documents with The Post and other media partners around the world.
“This is not an international consortium. This is the work of our [Czech] mafia,” he said on TV on Sunday.
It is not the first time Babis has confronted scandals that could derail his political career.
He has repeatedly faced claims that he was an informant for the feared secret police during communism. Babis has denied those claims, but a court in Slovakia (where he was born when it was Czechoslovakia) rejected a demand to clear his name.
The European Union recently said it would suspend some subsidies to the Czech Republic after an audit found that Babis had violated conflict-of-interest rules. In a separate case, Czech authorities said earlier this year that the prime minister should be indicted over alleged misuse of E.U. funds.
“Many democratic conventions have been broken already,” said Filip Kostelka, a democratization researcher at the University of Essex. “There is reason to believe that it could become much worse.”