PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czechs wrap up voting in a tight election on Saturday in which Prime Minister Andrej Babis battled criticism that he mismanaged the pandemic, stoked fast-rising debt with handouts and tend to his own business interests in office.

The billionaire Babis, who denies all the accusations, and his populist ANO party took a slight poll lead into the central European country’s election, which started on Friday and closes on Saturday at 2 p.m. CET (1200 GMT).

Results will begin arriving in the first few hours after voting booths close.

Babis vowed in his campaign to continue raising public sector wages and pensions, hoping to shore up the basis of his popular support after years of rising prosperity.

But he faced a strong challenge from the centre-right Together coalition and the progressive Pirates/Mayors bloc that refused to work with the billionaire leader over what they said were his unacceptable conflicts of interest related to the business empire he created before entering politics.

While pre-election polls indicated the ANO was unlikely to secure a majority, Babis’s party looked certain to emerge as the biggest vote getter, giving the premier the first shot at forming the next government.

But ANO may struggle to find governing partners, with two parties that backed his outgoing minority government at risk of losing their lower house seats. That could force ANO to seek an alliance with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party.

His big-spending policies, which he has stuck with despite a broad recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, mark a break from traditional Czech fiscal prudence. The European Union member state’s debt is set to be among the fastest growing in the bloc, albeit from a low base.

The opposition also blame Babis for chaotic policy changes during the pandemic, which has claimed more than 30,000 Czech lives, one of Europe’s worst per-capita death tolls.

Conflict of interest allegations, however, have been Babis’ main headache since first entering government as a junior member in 2013 and after winning his first election in 2017.

The 67-year-old put his Agrofert conglomerate of food, agriculture, chemical and media companies in trust funds that year and has denied wrongdoing, saying the moves met legal obligations. But a European Commission audit determined otherwise and it has stopped development grants to Agrofert.

Then last Sunday new allegations surfaced – which he also denied – that he used opaque offshore structures to buy real estate in France before entering politics.

In campaigning, Babis employed anti-migrant and anti-EU rhetoric and accused the Pirate/Mayors coalition of selling out the country by supporting more European integration and eventual adoption of the euro.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet; Editing by Mark Heinrich)



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