Ahead of election, Pandora Papers cast shadow over Czech PM

Andrej Babis, who denies allegations about his offshore dealings, is under pressure from Czechs, politicians and media.

Andrej Babis has served as the Czech premier since 2017 [File: David W Cerny/Reuters]

Prague, Czech Republic – With days to go until national elections in the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis is trying to shake off criticism following allegations about his business dealings in the Pandora Papers.

In the headline-grabbing leak published on Sunday, which revealed the offshore dealings of hundreds of public officials, international investigative journalists claimed that Babis, a billionaire, used a convoluted scheme to buy a $22m property in France.

Babis has denied the claims, tweeting to his 460,000 followers that he had done nothing wrong and dismissing the investigation as a smear campaign against him and his populist ANO party.

When journalists from the BBC and Czech investigative journalism outlet investigace.cz approached him for comment, the premier’s security pushed them away.

“I expected it. They are trying to make me look bad before the parliamentary elections,” Babis tweeted an hour after the Pandora Papers were published.

A reporter from Seznam Zpravy questioned the leader: “Did you declare your property for taxes?”

Babis responded: “I don’t own any real estate abroad. I don’t own any offshores.” But seconds later, he said he was advised to buy real estate via offshores.

As party campaign leaflets were handed out to people on the streets of Prague ahead of the two-day vote beginning Friday, talk was focused on the scandal.

“I always knew he was an idiot and always felt embarrassed whenever I heard him speak,” said Franta, a 49-year-old Prague resident. “I am not the least bit surprised, the younger generation will suffer under his leadership.”

However, others brushed off the claims.

“I don’t get what the Pandora thing is, it might be true but who knows,” said Ludmila, 72. “I support him because I get cheaper travel now that he is the prime minister, and there aren’t any candidates to choose from.”

Meanwhile, opposition politicians and members within Babis’s government have slammed the PM.

“He is collecting [criminal] scandals like Pokemons,” tweeted Marketa Adamova-Pekarova, leader of the liberal TOP09 opposition party.

In recent years, Babis has been accused of illegally obtaining EU subsidies by hiding his business interests – earning him the nickname “Babisconi” – a portmanteau of his name and that of the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Minister of Interior Jan Hamacek tweeted that he hopes Babis “does not preach water while drinking wine in tax havens”.

Czech Police said on Twitter said they would investigate the PM and others named in the allegations, but some had little trust in the authorities.

“Babis would have to live until at least 120 years of age to see you complete your work,” Martin Vavra replied.

Despite the drama, Babis’ voters would likely remain loyal, according to Martin Buchtík, a sociologist at the STEM Institute in Prague.

“Babis has a stable voter base. His voters are mostly older and consistent in their preferences,” Buchtík told Al Jazeera. “His voters tend to forgive, as we have learned on numerous occasions.”

Babis’s ANO party is leading polls, currently standing 6 percent ahead of the centre-right SPOLU coalition.

“His voters don’t think he is more trustworthy than other candidates, but they do praise him for being a strong manager with economic successes,” said Buchtík, adding that Babis’s strength lies in his PR teams, which will likely lead him to victory.

Source: Al Jazeera