Politics: the latest fashion accessory for the super-rich

You're a billionaire. What next? Why not run a country? Politics at the top — the latest fashion accessory for the very rich. Take the Czech Republic's Andrej Babis, who is poised to become the country's next prime minister.

In Czech Republic, controversial billionaire Andrej Babis is poised to become country's next prime minister

Several countries have recently seen men of extreme wealth with little political experience reach the highest echelons of power. From left: Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine; Czech billionaire and presidential candidate Andrej Babis; U.S. President Donald Trump. ( Ohn Fyrol, Michal Cizek, Chris Kleponis/Getty Images)

Right, you've piled up the big bucks, you're a billionaire. What next? Why not run a country?

Politics at the top — the latest fashion accessory for the very rich.

The most recent candidate in the rush to rule is Andrej Babis, a big man in a small state. In the Czech Republic, a country of 10.5 million people, Babis has amassed a Trump-size fortune estimated by Forbes to be more than $4.1 billion US (about $5.1 billion Cdn).

Czech parliamentary elections take place Friday and Saturday. Babis and his party are far ahead in the polls. If he does become prime minister (having served as finance minister for almost four years), he would join a select billionaires club of present and recent leaders in democracies.

Andrej Babis, Czech billionaire and leader of the ANO political movement, reacts during a pre-election debate Oct. 4 in Vsetaty, central Bohemia, near Prague. He is projected to win the election this Friday and Saturday. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Top of the list, of course, is Donald Trump, whose worth Forbes estimated at $3.1 billion US ($3.9 Cdn), followed by Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate billionaire who is the president of Ukraine. Then there is Silvio Berlusconi, no longer the boss but the richest of them all at roughly $15 billion and the man who led Italy for nine years until 2013.

It was Berlusconi who wrote much of the playbook on how billionaires should take power.

First, create your own populist political party. Berlusconi set up Forza Italia, or "Go, Italy." He borrowed the name of the chant of Italy soccer fans for their national team.

Petro Poroshenko, the chocolate billionaire who is the president of Ukraine. He seemed immune to temptations. (Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

Babis has followed suit with ANO, or "Yes," the name of his party.

Trump and Poroshenko were directly elected and less in need of new parties. Trump simply bulldozed his way to the top of the Republican Party in the primaries. Poroshenko came to power in Ukraine in the wake of the Orange Revolution of 2014, when a corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, was chased from office.

Poroshenko, as the billionaire owner of Roshen, a rich string of factories making chocolates for Ukrainians and Russians, seemed immune to the temptations of corruption. (In the wake of massive devaluations of Ukraine's currency, his worth is now estimated at $900 million US by Bloomberg.)

Silvio Berlusconi gathered up almost all the private TV networks in Italy, and they obediently parroted his line. (David Silverman/Getty Images)

Next, you run as an outsider, pledging to "drain the swamp," or the equivalent in Italian, Czech or Ukrainian. It helps to season this with lots of outrageous actions and comments to show you are not a calculating political pro. Berlusconi was the man of "bunga bunga" parties, the man who called German chancellor Angela Merkel "an (unprintable) lard ass."

Trump has embraced this style with a vengeance while Babis and Poroshenko are more circumspect.

Naturally, you pledge to park your vast fortune in a trust or the equivalent and even, if you are Berlusconi, to reach into your vast pockets to help your country's economy. In all four cases, this promise was quickly forgotten.

Berlusconi's government passed no fewer than 18 laws to safeguard his fortune and to protect him against criminal fraud cases linked to it.

Several thousand people attend a protest against Babis, who was finance minister at the time, and President Milos Zeman in Wenceslas Square in Prague in May. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

As for Poroshenko, the chocolate king, he vowed to "wipe the slate clean" by selling Roshen. Instead he set up a secret bank account in the British Virgin Islands three months after his election, an account that tax experts think would allow him to save millions in taxes on his fortune.

As if to further mock the promise, Roshen sells its top line in little strong boxes with a lock and key. Inside, the chocolates are wrapped in gold paper as imitation gold coins. Having tasted them, I would describe the chocolate as less than gold-standard. Poroshenko still owns the company.

Babis, as Czech finance minister, made no move to separate himself from his fortune until forced by the Czech parliament earlier this year. But more of that later.

Babis and his wife, Monika, shown at a polling station in Prague during regional and Senate elections last year. Publicly, Babis has shown indifference to the tax fraud charges against him. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

Finally, make sure to reinforce your message through ownership of media companies. Berlusconi gathered up almost all the private TV networks in Italy, and they obediently parroted his line when he was running for office.

Babis and Poroshenko own TV channels; Babis also has a couple of newspapers. Trump, always the outlier, made his mark not by owning a TV network but by starring on one.

Babis has the distinction of being the only billionaire with government experience before seeking the top job. In parliamentary elections four years ago his ANO party came second, and he was rewarded in the resulting coalition government with the No. 2 job.

He can boast of his record in office — high growth, low unemployment and the first government surplus in years.

Protesters demonstrate against Babis and Zeman last May. That month, Babis was replaced in his role as finance minister by former Microsoft executive Ivan Pilny. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)

But his refusal to distance himself from his conglomerate Agrofert, a vast web of companies employing 33,000 and dominating the Czech agricultural sector, is causing him headaches.

In January 2017, the Czech parliament banned cabinet officials from owning media or more than a quarter of any firm bidding for state contracts or EU subsidies. This is known as the Babis law.

'I couldn't care less. Both Berlusconi and Chirac also faced criminal charges.'- Andrej Babis

As a political leader and finance minister at the time, he was considered to have an unfair financial and media advantage. He had to put his assets in trust.

And just a month before the elections, police revealed they were recommending criminal charges against Babis.

Ten years ago, he spun off a small company to run a hotel called Stork's Nest. He put the company in the name of his children and scooped $3 million in subsidies from the European Union offered to small companies.

Czech police charged with maintaining order at a refugee transit centre near the southern Macedonian town of Gevgelija stand outside a train carrying refugees toward Serbia. Populist anti-migrant rhetoric has been part of Babis's campaign platform. 'If Brussels ends up with more Muslims than Belgians, that's their problem. I don't want that,' he told local media. (Boris Grdanoski/Associated Press)

Years later, with the money in the company's hands, he reintegrated the "small" enterprise into his conglomerate.

For this, the police want him charged with fraud. Babis reacted with a billionaire's indifference.

"I couldn't care less," he said in an interview this week with the national newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes, which he owns. "Both Berlusconi and [former French president Jacques] Chirac also faced criminal charges." He didn't mention that they were later both convicted.

'I don't want that'

In the billionaire populist manner, Babis offers less government, lower taxes, an attack on "welfare cheats," a big "no" to the European currency, the euro ("it's bankrupt") and a deep suspicion of the European Union and of all refugees and immigrants.

"We have to fight for what our ancestors built here," he said. "If Brussels ends up with more Muslims than Belgians, that's their problem. I don't want that."

That's very much in tune with the mood in Central Europe, particularly in the wake of the election of Sebastian Kurz, a right-wing prime minister in Austria.

Suspicion of traditional political elites is so strong in the Czech Republic that established parties are floundering. And along with ANO, parties calling themselves "Pirates" and "Freedom and Direct Democracy" are rising. The second preaches a fierce nationalist, anti-immigrant message.

Miserable failure

But winning isn't everything. Trump has the lowest popularity ratings of any postwar president in his first year in office.

Berlusconi was forced from office and convicted of fraud, his years as premier now regarded as a miserable failure.

And Poroshenko presides over a government considered by the International Monetary Fund as deeply corrupt. Several of Poroshenko's ministers have pointed at his own connivance in corruption in their resignation letters.

In a recent opinion poll, just two per cent of voters said they trusted him.

Power as a plaything may be tempting for billionaires. But their time in office can play havoc with their reputations.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.