Prague: Czechs voted on Saturday in the final day of a snap election, called in the wake of a spy and bribery scandal, that is expected to be won by the left-wing opposition.
Opinion polls ahead of the election gave the lead to the Social Democrats (CSSD) but the left-wing party seemed likely to fall short of a stable majority.
Survey indicated the CSSD would win 26 per cent, with 18 per cent voting for the Communists and 16.5 per cent for the populist party Ano formed by billionaire Andrej Babis.
Tipped as the next premier, Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka has said his party could go it alone in a minority government, relying on the tacit support of the Communists.
Czechs have been worn down by years of graft and austerity. They are expected to punish centre-right parties after a scandal involving former prime minister Petr Necas’s lover and chief-of-staff. She was arrested in June and charged with bribery and abuse of power.
Voters already veered left in January, electing ex-Communist Milos Zeman president after a decade under the right-wing and eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus.
Babis, a Slovak-born farming tycoon and media mogul, has capitalised on the discontent with the right with a populist campaign vowing squeaky-clean politics.
“If they can’t agree [on a coalition government], the powerful president could propose a government or call fresh elections,” the top selling Dnes broadsheet warned on Saturday.
Up to nine parties could enter parliament.
Coalition governments lacking comfortable majorities are the norm on the fragmented Czech political scene. Smaller parties or independent MPs are often wooed for support.
But many Czechs are outraged by the prospect of the far-left Communists becoming a powerbroker for the first time since the Velvet Revolution brought down totalitarianism two decades ago.
Anti-communists hoisted a massive banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin atop a hill in central Prague on Friday.
Rebel artist David Cerny gave Zeman the finger — a huge purple one floating along the river before the presidential castle — over his soft spot for the Communists.
And Czech rockers played gigs called “Nikagda nezabudem” in Russian or “We’ll never forget”.
“I’d hate to see them in government,” Dana Nemcova, a former dissident close to late Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, said as she cast her ballot in Prague.
But others, hurting from years of austerity and a record 18-month recession that ended this year, welcome a swing to the left.
“I voted Social Democracy, I’m a disabled pensioner with a rather low income. I think they could try to cut value-added tax,” added Prague voter Jordan Leff.
Like the Social Democrats, the Communists back generous welfare programmes and eurozone entry once its debt woes are over, but they also want the Czech Republic to leave Nato.
Sobotka dismissed the fears over the far-left rise.
“Communism was vanquished in 1989. Today, there is no longer any danger of someone pushing our country east,” he said on Saturday.
Sobotka has so far ruled out teaming up with Babis, whose party favours joining the eurozone but “not just yet”.
Analysts say Ano — meaning “yes” and an acronym for Action for Alienated Citizens — is a force to be reckoned with but point out the risks.
“It’s hard to figure out [Ano’s policy stance] and so it’s a risky coalition partner. I think the Social Democrats will look at all other possible coalitions,” said Jan Outly, political analyst at Metropolitan University in Prague.
Babis reinvented US President Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign slogan, promising Czechs “Yes, We’ll Be Better Off” with a politician who knows how to make money.
Claiming his billions make him immune to bribery, the second wealthiest Czech is wooing voters with a promise to clean up politics.
Corruption has plagued the EU member of 10.5 million people since its 1993 split with Slovakia, a legacy of four decades of totalitarian rule.
Transparency International ranks the Czech Republic as more corrupt than Rwanda and 94 per cent of Czechs believe graft is “widespread in government”, according to a Gallup Institute survey released last week.
“Why would someone who manages a large company not be able to manage a small country? You’ve got my YES,” Ano voter Filip Dusek said on the party’s Facebook page.
No exit polls are expected when voting ends at 1200 GMT on Saturday.