PRAGUE — The man poised to lead the Czech Republic following elections this week is a polarizing billionaire who vows to drain the swamp of this capital city's politics, run his country like a business and keep out Muslim immigrants.
He casts himself as the straight-talking voice of the common man and derives support from the country’s forgotten communities. He makes a sport of attacking the European Union and says NATO’s mission is outdated. He pledges to put his own nation’s interests above all else but is dogged by investigations into alleged shady dealings that threaten to cripple his political career.
Andrej Babis is so similar to the U.S. president in profile and outlook that he feels compelled to offer at least one key distinction.
“I was never bankrupt,” the 63-year-old says mischievously in an interview at his featureless office park on the outskirts of this gloriously gargoyle-and-spire-pierced city.
There are other differences, too. But the overall picture is clear: Europe, a land where President Trump is widely reviled, could soon have a man who bears an uncanny resemblance leading a nation at the continent’s heart.
“People here may not like Trump,” said Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University’s Prague campus. “But they like Trumpian politics as performed by Mr. Babis.”
Babis won’t be alone, either. If elections on Friday and Saturday vault him to the prime minister’s office, as polls suggest they probably will, he could plant a flag farther west for a strongman vision of government that is testing young democracies to the east — and in the process straining European unity.
“He’s no democrat,” said Pehe, a former adviser to Vaclav Havel, the Czech anti-communist dissident turned president. “The danger here is that the Czech Republic could slide to the European periphery, along with Hungary and Poland.”
Austria, too, is shifting in that direction, after an election Sunday that put in line for chancellor a 31-year-old conservative who has mimicked many of the policies of the far-right Freedom Party — and is expected to make the Euroskeptic party his partner in government.
The Czech Republic's own turn toward the east is, in many respects, surprising. Of the nations that emerged from behind the Iron Curtain nearly three decades ago, the Czech Republic has fared the best by numerous measures. With a strong manufacturing base, it has the lowest unemployment rate in the E.U., a budget surplus and life satisfaction ratings that would be the envy of the Italians or the Spanish.
Unlike Poland, it didn't suffer a mass exodus of its young workers. Unlike Hungary, it didn't have hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers crossing its territory at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis.
But the Czech Republic does have persistently low wages, along with a political class that is notoriously beset by corruption. It also has older residents who yearn for the simpler days of their communist youth, when the all-powerful state protected them.
The combination has made the nation of 10 million fertile ground for populism. And Babis, the country’s second-wealthiest man, has seized the opportunity.
The businessman, who initially earned his wealth under still-mysterious circumstances during the first years after communism’s collapse, makes an unlikely champion of the little guy.
Born in modern-day Slovakia as the son of a diplomat, he spent part of his youth in Switzerland and speaks fluent German, French and English. As an adult, he lived for years in Morocco. His vast business empire includes agricultural and chemical firms, Michelin-starred restaurants and a significant portion of the Czech national media.
He was a political novice when, in 2012, he founded his own party, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, which is known by its Czech acronym ANO, meaning “yes.”
The party, running on a pro-business and anti-political-establishment platform, stunned the nation a year later when it took second place in parliamentary elections. Babis became finance minister in a coalition government, and served until May, when he was forced out amid a swirl of accusations over alleged tax evasion and other improprieties — all of which he denies.
But the ouster didn’t weaken him. If anything, it may have bolstered his carefully cultivated reputation as a political outsider whom the insiders will do anything to ruin.
“People are saying that I’m a danger to democracy in this country, which of course is ridiculous,” he said, his gray suit neatly pressed, his gray hair and beard trimmed tight. “I’m a danger to this corrupt system.”
It’s a message that he repeats relentlessly on the trail, where he signs copies of his slickly produced campaign book and gives out his cellphone number to people who say they could use his help battling the turgid Czech bureaucracy.
“He’s a normal guy,” said Zdena Krskova, a 69-year-old who was shopping for dinner one day at an open-air market in a working-class neighborhood of north Prague. “Plus, he has enough money, so he doesn’t need to steal from the people.”
Babis’s support is concentrated outside Prague, in smaller cities and towns that haven’t shared the same bump in prosperity as the country’s tourist-thronged capital. It also comes from older voters who are looking to the billionaire to cut through the messy logistics of democratic politics and use a firm hand to restore a simpler, bygone time, said Daniel Prokop, head of political polling for the research firm Median.
“His voters are authoritarian-oriented,” Prokop said. “If you ask whether it’s better to have a strong leader or democratic decision-making, his people say strong leader.”
And there’s a reason they gravitate to Babis.
“He’s used to getting his way,” said Jan Machacek, who runs a think tank funded by Babis’s firms. “Compromise is not in his genes.”
Machacek, who was a dissident during communist times, said the billionaire’s political rise reflects widespread disappointment among Czech voters who had high hopes for a democratic system they thought could solve the nation’s ills. Instead, he said, they got weak parties and corrupt politicians.
The consequence of such disillusionment, he said, “could be a lot worse than Mr. Babis.”
Unlike Trump, Machacek said, Babis is no showboat. He is a demanding businessman but doesn’t deliberately sow chaos.
Yet Babis has shown a willingness to pick fights with powerful European leaders, particularly on the issue of refugees.
In the interview, Babis mocked programs under which E.U. members are supposed to share the burden of taking in asylum seekers, disparaged the notion of a “multicultural society” and, referring to the German chancellor, blamed the 2015 refugee crisis on “the stupidity of Madame Merkel.”
Such comments could mean more trouble for the E.U., which is grappling with how to handle populist governments in Hungary and Poland. In both countries, the leaders are well practiced at demonizing migrants and flouting the will of Brussels for domestic gain.
Babis seems to be employing a similar approach — at least during the campaign.
“He’s operating with fear. Promoting danger — the E.U. and migrants,” said Ivan Gabal, an independent member of Parliament who is aligned with the center-right Christian Democrats. “That’s the whole strategy.”
In the Czech Republic — where anti-E.U. and anti-migrant sentiment both run high — it seems to be a winning one. But it’s not unusual here, and Babis came to it relatively late.
Even if Babis’s party comes out on top this week, he will need to find coalition partners. He will also have to contend with multiple investigations into his business practices. And he will need to work with Europe.
All of which suggests that, like Trump, Babis may shift course on some of his campaign promises once he confronts the reality of governing. And unlike Trump, Gabal said, Babis is capable of admitting when he’s wrong.
“When you put data in front of him and say, ‘You’re not right. The situation is different,’ he’ll look at it. And accept it,” said Gabal, whose party has been in coalition with Babis’s — and may be once again post-election. “He’s not stupid.”
Katerina Santurova contributed to this report.