Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis loses vote of confidence

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis loses vote of confidence
In another blow, the lower chamber’s immunity committee recommended that parliament withdraw Babis’ immunity from prosecution for fraud.
By Robert Anderson in Prague January 17, 2018

Andrej Babis, the Czech billionaire populist, lost the confidence vote to confirm his minority one-party cabinet in power by 117 to 78 votes on January 16, with only his own Ano party supporting him.

The vote, which was expected, now leaves him as a caretaker premier until a second vote of confidence is held, but his chances of forming a government are beginning to fade.

President Milos Zeman, up to now a close ally, has announced that he intends to give Babis a second chance following his convincing electoral victory in October, but that he will need to show he has 101 votes before he will renominate him.

The agro-chemicals tycoon’s position has been weakened by Zeman’s weak showing in the first round of the presidential election on January 12-13.

Zeman, 73, looks likely to lose the run-off on January 26-27 to Jiri Drahos, a liberal non-party former head of the Academy of Sciences, who has said that he would not nominate Babis while he has fraud charges hanging over him.

Zeman, a onetime Social Democrat who now flirts with the far right, won 38.6% of the vote, 12 points ahead of Drahos on 26.6%, but most of the remaining candidates have urged their supporters to back Drahos.

In another blow, the lower chamber’s immunity committee on January 16 recommended that parliament withdraw Babis’ immunity from prosecution for fraud following a police request. Babis himself finally asked for his immunity to be lifted, though his deputies had been holding up the committee. Parliament is expected to vote to lift Babis’ immunity next week.

Babis’ Agrofert conglomerate transferred ownership of a project to build the Stork’s Nest conference and recreation centre to his small family-owned company, entitling it to CZK50mn in EU subsidies for small and medium sized enterprises, and then reassumed ownership when the centre was built. Olaf, the EU’s fraud watchdog, has sent the Czech police a report confirming there are suspicions of fraud, which the police are investigating.

Babis claims the police investigation, and even Olaf’s report, is all just a plot by his political enemies. “Citizens are not stupid and know it is a political affiar," he said on January 16. “This is a ploy organised by the mafia that had been stealing billions here, for a long time, and I of course bother them.”

So far all mainstream parties have refused to back Babis as premier while he is under investigation for fraud, and he has refused to step back to enable another Ano deputy to be nominated as prime minister.

“The Ano chairman should wake up from his dream about a minority, one-party government and he should start working normally, work on building a government with majority support in parliament,” Petr Fiala, head of the rightwing Civic Democrats, told reporters on January 16.

If Zeman were to lose, unless Babis can convince the parties to change their mind by the time Drahos would take over in March, it looks very difficult for him to become premier. So far only the hardline Communists and the far right Freedom and Direct Democracy have indicated that they could support him, but their backing would tarnish his domestic and international reputation.

If Babis refuses to step back, while remaining unable to find coalition allies, the country could be forced to hold fresh elections because a government without Babis' Ano party would be extremely difficult to form. Even Babis would need to find two coalition partners to run a stable government from the other eight parties in parliament; other coalitions would have to be much wider.

The hitherto firm alliance between Zeman and Babis has also now begun to buckle. Babis criticised Zeman’s top advisers over the weekend, saying that the president should distance himself from Vratislav Mynar and Martin Nejedly, who have been accused of shady deals and Kremlin links.  The Castle has refused to comment.

Meanwhile Zeman, who had previously said he would give Babis as many chances as he could to form a government, announced last week the requirement that he would need to show he had 101 votes to be renominated.  Zeman had mainly backed Babis as a way to win his support in his re-election bid. He would have much less reason to back Babis if he were to lose the presidential election.

Nevertheless Zeman, one of the country’s dominant personalities since the collapse of communism, still has a significant chance of winning re-election if he is able to mobilise his core voters in villages and small towns, who tend to be older, poorer and less well educated than Drahos’s.

He is expected to now take off the gloves, and try to strike a knock-out against the political novice in the planned TV debates. After refusing to take part in TV debates in the first round, Zeman is now calling for four TV duels to take place, while Drahos has proposed two.