PRAGUE: A populist billionaire who is tipped to win, his Social Democrat rival and two leaders of anti-system parties will be in the spotlight this weekend as the Czech Republic's general election gets underway.
Andrej Babis and his populist ANO (Yes) movement are expected to cruise to victory - but it remains to be seen by how much, and what kind of a coalition he will put together.
Like Donald Trump in the United States and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, this owner of the sprawling Agrofert chemicals, food and media conglomerate and second-wealthiest Czech has transformed himself from an entrepreneur into a politician, In his own words he is not "like the others", "works hard" and "doesn't talk nonsense".
The 63-year-old Slovak-born billionaire, who served as finance minister from 2014 until May this year, has persuaded crowds with his rhetoric, despite allegations of fishy business dealings and collaboration with the Communist secret police in the 1980s, voiced by his rivals.
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A recent fraud indictment against Babis over the financing of his Stork Nest farm south of Prague using EU funds, also investigated by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), has led voters to ask: how will he be able to work as prime minister if he is prosecuted?
Struggling to stop his leftwing party's free fall in opinion polls, the 61-year-old pro-European foreign minister replaced unpopular Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, as the CSSD (Social Democrats) leader for the election. Having become the chief rival for Babis, Zaoralek has never ruled out a coalition with ANO, whose head once called him "an idiot" in a conversation with a journalist whose recording has been leaked.
The former TV script editor hailing from the industrial and mining eastern city of Ostrava entered politics in 1990. Having made it into parliament in 1996, he was the speaker of the lower house in 2002-2006. He became foreign minister in 2014. The dark horse of the elections, this 45-year-old Tokyo-born entrepreneur and far-right lawmaker is set to enter parliament again thanks to his anti-EU and anti-migrant rhetoric, with recent polls suggesting he may score more than 10 per cent of the vote.
Born to a Japanese father and a Czech mother, he made a living selling popcorn in Tokyo, before making a fortune in the tourism and restaurant business in the Czech Republic. Okamura was elected senator in 2012 and lawmaker in 2013 for his far-right "Dawn of Direct Democracy" which eventually splintered.
Surprisingly, his staunchly anti-Islamic rhetoric has won him popularity in a country where there are hardly any Muslims. He has also called for a ban on Islam in the Czech Republic, insisting that its Sharia law is incompatible with European law. Okamura's new SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy) party has links to Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front in France.
His policies stand in stark contrast to the views of his brother Hayato, a Christian Democrat, who once told the press that "Tomio is acting in the interest of Vladimir Putin's government in Moscow, which will do anything to weaken and dismantle the EU". The Pirates expect this 37-year-old dreadlocked IT expert with a degree from Prague's Charles University to help them clinch their first ever seats in parliament.
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Founded in 2009, the party has gradually become an interesting alternative for the free-thinking first-time voters active on social networks, but also for pro-European intellectuals who believe in the spirit of "truth and love" once promoted by the late president Vaclav Havel, a communist-era dissident playwright.
"We are ready to act as a sharp opposition, but we are ready to back any reasonable proposals," said Bartos, also known as a DJ, singer and accordionist of the punk-rap group "Nohama napred" ("Legs first").
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