Social Democrats edge out populists to win Czech vote, coalition uncertain

Chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party and candidate for Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, leaves a polling station in Austerlitz, after casting his ballot on October 25, 2013.

Social Democrats edged out a new populist party to win early elections in the Czech Republic on Saturday as voters angered by years of right-wing graft and austerity veered left, nearly full results showed.

The Social Democrats (CSSD) scored 20.56 percent, the billionaire-led populist newcomer ANO party surprised with 18.68 percent while the Communists lagged behind with 14.99 percent, with 98.89 percent of votes counted.

"The result may not be what we imagined but it's the highest score of all parties," Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka told reporters in Prague, adding that he was "ready to start talks" on a coalition with all parties in parliament.

But billionaire Andrej Babis said his ANO party "definitely won't support a leftist cabinet. We won't support a cabinet comprising the CSSD."

Tipped as the new premier, the 42-year-old Sobotka hinted earlier that he could form a minority government with the tacit support of the Communists.

Analysts said Saturday that the fragmented outcome presents no clear perspective for a stable majority government.

Coalition governments lacking comfortable majorities are the norm on the Czech political scene, with smaller parties or independent MPs often wooed for support.

"Every single lawmaker could matter, but I think the Social Democrats will have to glue together a very colourful coalition or strike a deal with ANO," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Prague's Charles University, told AFP.

Communist leader Vojtech Filip said Saturday he was open to talks with all players, but the party's name remains toxic two decades after the former Czechoslovakia shed totalitarian rule, and the Social Democrats remain the only party willing to work with it.

The ballot caps months of political turmoil set off by a spy and bribery scandal that brought down the centre-right government of Petr Necas in June.

Voters already swung left in January, electing former Communist Milos Zeman as president after a decade under the right-wing and eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus.

Right-wing parties disgraced by Necas's fall from favour fared poorly Saturday but all managed to jump a five percent hurdle to enter parliament.

Turnout topped 59 percent.

Many Czechs are outraged by the prospect of the far left gaining political ground for the first time since the Velvet Revolution 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.

Rockers performed tunes such as "We'll Never Forget" in Russian, while 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.

"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.

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.

Tycoon means business

Babis, a Slovak-born farming tycoon and media mogul, capitalised on the blow dealt to the right by the bribery scandal to catapult his party from nowhere into second place.

He said Saturday his party would prefer to stay in the opposition.

"We'll be terribly glad to prevent the rise of left-wingers backed by Communists," said the 59-year-old, himself a former Communist.

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 also wooed voters with vows of squeaky clean politics.

A legacy of four decades of totalitarian rule and corruption has plagued the EU member of 10.5 million people since its 1993 split with Slovakia.

Transparency International ranks the Czech Republic as more corrupt than Rwanda and a recent Gallup Institute survey showed 94 percent of Czechs believe graft is "widespread in government."

"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.