Czech PM’s Popularity Plummets With New Virus Outbreak

A European leader who emerged as a trailblazer this spring with an uncompromising approach to stamping out the coronavirus has seen his popularity plummet after a record spike in infections.

Billionaire Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, whose government was one of the first in the European Union to shut schools and businesses and require people to wear masks, is now struggling to contain a surge in new cases that followed the lifting of restrictions in June.

With the country of 10.7 million now trailing only Spain as the EU nation with the most new cases per capita, Babis’s health minister stepped down on Monday. Support for the ruling ANO party has fallen to its lowest level since its dominating 2017 election victory, according to an Aug. 31-Sept. 13 survey from the STEM pollster published Tuesday.

“It’s the reaction of voters to the spike and to the chaotic communication of the government in past few weeks,” said Josef Mlejnek, a political scientist at Charles university in Prague. “While Czech society is quite divided over the coronavirus and measures that should be taken against it, ANO voters are often elderly people and they require the government to protect them.”

The government reinstated the rule on masks last week and called for restaurants to close at 10 p.m. But those measures followed missteps, including Babis’s decision to overrule a recommendation from his health team to require face coverings last month that he has since said may have been a mistake.

The latest poll was conducted before the resignation of former Health Minister Adam Vojtech and the second-highest daily death toll from the virus of 14 on Monday. A day later, the country recorded the second-highest number of new cases at 2,394.

While ANO remains the most popular Czech party overall, the government’s inconsistent virus response has also hit Babis’s personal popularity. For the first time, his rival — and coalition partner — Social Democratic Party leader Jan Hamacek overtook him in polls.

The prime minister rejected, for now, returning to the full lockdown protocol imposed in March that shielded the country from the type of outbreaks seen in harder hit countries such as Spain, France and the U.K.

Total cases in the Czech Republic have exceeded 53,000 since the start of the pandemic, with 531 fatalities.

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