Czech premier Andrej Babis suffers double blow in search of vote of confidence

Czech premier Andrej Babis suffers double blow in search of vote of confidence
Andrej Babis after his election victory.
By Robert Anderson in Prague January 10, 2018

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis suffered two severe blows on January 10 when President Milos Zeman announced that he would only reappoint him once he had proven he had majority support, and parliament postponed a confirmation vote that the billionaire populist looks certain to lose.

The surprise announcement during the president’s address to parliament before the scheduled vote of confidence puts Zeman in a stronger position before his own re-election battle at the weekend. It also puts big pressure on Babis, who finished the runaway leader in October’s general election but has been so far unable to form a majority coaltion.

Zeman has backed Babis up to now in order both to ensure the agro-chemicals tycoon did not anoint a rival presidential candidate, and to spite his former party, the Social Democrats (CSSD), which which he broke after they failed to back his first presidential bid. Previously he had pledged to automatically nominate Babis a second time if he lost the first vote of confidence and had even aired the possibility that the premier would be allowed to keep governing as a caretaker regardless of whether parliament ever backed him. Now he has re-embraced the constitutional precedent that would-be premiers have to show they have majority support before they are officially nominated. If Babis cannot demonstrate he has such support, Zeman could appoint his own caretaker government, as he did in 2013-14.

Babis will resign as premier if he loses the confidence vote, continuing only as a caretaker;  he will then need to find the extra votes before he can be re-nominated by the president. This both weakens Babis’ position and strengthens Zeman’s, and demonstrates the president’s vital importance in a political crisis, something that Zeman hopes will benefit him in the presidential election on January 12-13.

During the debate in parliament on January 10 it was obvious that Babis would only win the support of his own Ano party’s 78 deputies in the 200-member chamber in the confidence vote. Even the hardline Communists withdrew their initial offer to tolerate his government by walking out, despite Babis agreeing to put forward a bill to tax compensation awarded to churches for their property seized under the communist regime.

All mainstream parties have refused to back Babis because he is under investigation for EU subsidy fraud. They have also accused Babis of only going through the motions of conducting negotiations with them because he is relying on the president’s support to maintain his minority government.

“The circumstances of the emergence of the one-colour minority government of the Ano movement are disturbing,” tweeted Petr Fiala, leader of the rightwing Civic Democrats, which came second in the general election. “No serious talks have taken place on the creation of a transparent majority in parliament, and both the president and the new prime minister have proceeded from the outset towards a minority government, thus violating parliament’s democratic practices.”

The vote was eventully postponed until January 16 to enable parliament to examine whether to once again withdraw Babis’ immunity from prosecution, which was reinstated by the general election. This is a blow because Babis had tried to delay any vote on his immunity until after the vote of confidence. The immunity committee, which reviews the police’s application, has been dragging its feet because of the political stalemate, even though it was all gone through as recently as last year.

The scandal over the allegedly fraudulent subsidy application for the Stork’s Nest conference and recreation centre has deepened after a report by the EU fraud watchdog Olaf confirmed there were serious suspicion of irregularities, with the applicant company providing untrue and incomplete information. Babis’s government has refused to release the report but it has been leaked to the media.

Babis claims he had nothing to do with the claim for EU aid, which was made by a company owned by his family. He also says he needs more time to go through the report before he appears before the committee. Eventually however, his immunity is likely to be lifted, though whether the police can then prove that he was directly responsible for any fraud is questionable.

Despite these setbacks, there are growing signs that the CSSD, Ano’s former partners in government, are moving closer to forming a new coalition with Babis, this time possibly backed with the votes of the Communists, giving it a majority of 108.

"The CSSD is ready to unblock this pathetic situation and start a brand new negotiation on the establishment of a coalition government," Milan Chovanec, the party’s acting leader, tweeted before the vote.

CSSD deputy chairman Jan Chvojka, in an interview with Echo TV, said the party would demand the finance, interior and justice portfolios, to prevent Babis interfering with the Stork’s Nest investigation.

Such a coalition has long been Zeman’s preferred solution, something that he could be in a strong position to impose if he opens up a convincing lead in the first round of the presidential election. The two leading candidates will go through to a run-off on January 26-27, where Zeman is likely to face a strong challenge from Jiri Drahos, former president of the Academy of Sciences.

Zeman will want to be able to show voters the birth of the new government before the second round of the election but the timing remains very tight, particularly because the CSSD will be effectively leaderless until a party congress in February.

If the parties cannot agree in time, and Drahos wins, the political deadlock may be extended because though the centrist former chemist has made mixed comments about Babis, he might balk at a government backed by the Communists, who have been pariahs ever since the 1989 Velvet Revolution.