Czech finance minister prepares for sacking as political crisis heads for new phase

Czech finance minister prepares for sacking as political crisis heads for new phase
The centrist Ano party, headed by Finance Minister Andrej Babis, has proposed his deputy minister as a replacement.
By bne IntelliNews May 12, 2017

The centrist Ano party, headed by Finance Minister Andrej Babis, has proposed his deputy minister as a replacement, local media reported on May 12. The move suggests the billionaire deputy prime minister is ready for the president – who is perceived as his ally in the current Czech constitutional crisis – to finally agree to Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s call for his sacking.

Sobotka is fighting to force President Milos Zeman to fire Babis after the head of state refused an attempt by the PM to make the whole government resign. The move is part of an effort by Sobotka to revive the fortunes of his coalition-leading CSSD party, which is struggling to close a double-digit gap in the polls enjoyed by governing partner Ano.

In a letter sent on May 11, Ano proposed Deputy Finance Minister Alena Schiller should fill Babis’ post, in case Zeman agrees to his sacking, reports CTK. Environment Minister Richard Brabce is put forward to take over the Ano leader’s role as deputy PM. Babis also called on Sobotka to organize a coalition meeting.

Sobotka said on May 2 he would offer his – and therefore the government’s – resignation, only to pull out when Zeman blindsided him. The PM is desperately seeking to shine a light on claims that Babis has committed financial improprieties and sought to use his media assets to influence the next election, which is currently scheduled for October.

However, Zeman and Babis have spent months closing in on a deal to unite to quash Sobotka. The president – the country’s most popular politician – faces his own re-election in January,  and would like the support of Babis, the second most trusted. Meanwhile, Zeman has long sought to encourage the left-leaning CSSD – which he led as PM in the 1990s – to knife Sobotka, who he blames for the failure of his first attempt to become president.

The president has so far refused to sack Babis, despite consensus that he must do so swiftly according to the constitution. However, with protestors in the major cities and Czech political parties – and especially the CSSD – now appearing to rally around the PM’s call, there appears little potential advantage for either Zeman or Babis to hold on much longer.

Zeman is currently on a trip to China, and is due back on May 18. It seems likely he will dismiss Babis when he returns.

Support for the populist Ano party has been resilient in the past to allegations about Babis' financial affairs and conflicts of interest, so it is doubtful whether it will be damaged by his collaboration with the premier, or the allegation that he is using the newspapers he owns to target political rivals. The party has sat on support of around 30% or more for some time in the polls; the CSSD is struggling on 15% or so.

Released from his post in the government, Babis – who has found favour with voters by saying he wants to run the country as he does his business empire – would have more time to dedicate to campaigning, assuming that snap elections are avoided. That might push the CSSD to try to bring the vote forward.

However, ousting Babis to try to back up the accusations against him is the main point for now for the coalition leader. Sobotka has been at pains to paint himself as reasonable. His party has said it is ready to compromise and that he wants the finance ministry to continue to be run by an Ano nominee, provided they have no ties to Agrofert, the agricultural and chemicals conglomerate owned by Babis.

 

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