Days before the start of a presidential election in which he is a favorite, Czech billionaire and former prime minister Andrej Babis appeared in court once more on Wednesday to defend himself against allegations of fraud involving a 2 million euro subsidy.
In spite of his ANO party winning the most seats in parliament, Babis was deposed in an election in 2021 by a coalition of opposition parties after dominating Czech politics for the previous ten years, first as a potent finance minister and then as prime minister.
Babis, 68, is running for president to succeed Milos Zeman, whose second term ends in March, even though his party is currently in opposition. Zeman has been a close ally.
However, due to his extensive business empire, the owner of the Agrofert chemicals, farming, food, and media conglomerate, which is currently held in a trust, has long been the target of conflict of interest allegations.
Babis is accused of illegally using an EU subsidy to construct the Stork’s Nest conference center near Prague before founding his ANO party in 2011 by concealing his ownership in the project.
Babis has consistently dismissed the allegations against him as political and denied any wrongdoing. Before going into court on Wednesday, he avoided speaking to reporters.
Babis has the right to appeal, and his appeal will probably be heard before the vote, even if the court finds him guilty and sentences him to a jail term. However, some potential presidential voters may be turned off by the trial itself, according to observers.
One of the front-runners in the election, whose first round of voting begins on January 13–14, is Babis, who is the fifth-richest person in the nation according to Forbes’ 2021 list.
According to polls, Danuse Nerudova, a former university rector, former Czech Army general Petr Pavel, and Babis all have an equal chance of moving on to the second round, where the top two candidates will face off on January 27–28.
According to polls, Babis will lose in the next round.
But despite allegations of conflict of interest against its leader, Babis’ ANO has maintained its lead in party polls.
As Agrofert, which employs over 30,000 people, accessed development subsidies while he was in office, the European Commission determined that he was in a conflict of interest.
Le Monde reports that French prosecutors are also looking into his use of offshore companies to buy property in France. All wrongdoing has been refuted by him.