Czech President Zeman to name Babis PM despite EU subsidy fraud charge

Czech President Zeman to name Babis PM despite EU subsidy fraud charge
Zeman has no qualms about making fellow populist Babis Czech PM despite the fraud charge hanging over the election winner's head.
By bne IntelliNews October 22, 2017

Czech President Milos Zeman on October 22 said he will go ahead and name fellow populist Andrej Babis as prime minister, a move that will anger the establishment parties the anti-establishment billionaire oligarch roundly defeated in the weekend general election given that he has been charged with EU subsidy fraud.

Kremlin-friendly and outspoken Zeman said the charge was not an obstacle that should stop Babis becoming prime minister, adding in a live interview on tabloid news website www.blesk.cz: “My aim is that when I appoint the prime minister, who will be Andrej Babis, there will be certainty or a high probability at least that this prime minister will win a vote of confidence in parliament.” Babis claims the fraud case is part of a disinformation effort devised by his political enemies.

Eurosceptic, anti-migrant and anti-corruption movement Ano (which means "Yes" in Czech, while the acronym ANO stands in Czech for Association of Dissatisfied Citizens) will have 78 of the 200 MPs in the new lower house assembly, having taken 29.6% of the vote, towards three times as much as the second-placed centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS), a fellow eurosceptic party but also an establishment party, who won 11.3%. ODS has already said it will not go into coalition with Babis—who also faces a reopened court case in his native Slovakia to establish whether his denial that he was once a Communist-era secret police agent is truthful—while the centre-left Social Democrats—who were the senior partner to Ano in the last government but were almost wiped out in the election—gained just 7.3% of the vote, have ruled out any coalition that includes Babis in the cabinet.

The liberal Pirate Party, which placed third in the election, centrist Christian Democrats, and centre right parties TOP09 and STAN, have all also said they will not work with any coalition that features Babis. Jan Farsky, election leader for STAN, told Reuters. “I can’t legitimise him and create the appearance of normality. Democratic forces got trounced but they will not regain strength by cooperation with Babis. That would finish them off.”

If none of these mainstream party rejections of agrochemicals and foodstuffs entrepreneur Babis are withdrawn, the fear among liberals who believe the Ano leader has shown authoritarian tendencies that, with Zeman’s support, could take the Czech Republic down an illiberal road, would be that he may then have every excuse to work with the support of the Communists and the anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim far right Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD), who gained 15 and 22 seats in parliament in the national poll, respectively.

Zeman said he would meet Babis on October 23 for discussions, but suggested his formal appointment as PM would happen later. The president said he intends to call the new parliament’s first session after the maximum 30 days allowed by the constitution, to provide enough time for coalition talks.

Another difficulty for Babis is that the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) is yet to report on what it judges his role was in the "Stork Nest" affair in which more than €2mn of subsidies meant for small and medium sized enterprises allegedly went to a farm and conference centre near Prague that, given the actual ownership, could not in reality be placed in that category.

Other objections to Babis—who according to Forbes has an estimated personal fortune of $4bn—include the fact that though a politician he has in recent years built up a media business that includes 23 newspapers—including two of the main Czech dailies, Mlada fronta Dnes and Lidove noviny--and magazines, three small TV stations and a national radio station, largest private radio station Radio Impuls. He has faced walkouts from journalists who refused to work for an owner who is so prominent in politics. Babis has claimed he would never get involved in influencing content in his newspapers but earlier this year a leaked tape suggested he had discussed how to cover opponents with a journalist. The journalist was fired.

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