Andrej Babis appointed premier to lead Czech minority government

Andrej Babis appointed premier to lead Czech minority government
Andrej Babis' cabinet will be sworn in on December 13, enabling him to attend the EU summit on December 14.
By bne IntelliNews December 7, 2017

Andrej Babis, whose Ano party won the Czech general election in October, was sworn in as prime minister on December 6, although it looks as if the populist billionaire will have to rely on communists and neo-fascists to maintain his single-party government's hold on power.

Babis, the country’s oldest ever premier at 63, has made no progress over the past six weeks in persuading mainstream parties to join him in government because of outstanding charges against him for alleged EU subsidy fraud. The agro-chemicals tycoon now appears resolved to try to govern alone, with at least the toleration of the extremist parties. Ano has 78 seats in the 200-member parliament, the hardline Communists have 15 and the neo-fascist Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) of Tomio Okamura has 22.

There is still speculation that Ano’s partners in the previous government, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, could be persuaded to eventually join his government, though this is more likely after the first vote of confidence is held in January. Both parties fear early elections after their vote sunk in the general election. They would be given an excuse to rethink their opposition to Babis, were Czech police to drop the fraud charges, though the case is still under investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog Olaf.

President Milos Zeman – who has been openly backing Babis as a way to bolster his own re-election chances in January’s presidential election – has said that he will reappoint him as premier if he loses the first vote of confidence. The speaker of the lower house has the right to make the third attempt to find a prime minister. Given that the speaker is Ano’s Radek Vondracek, the party can effectively block any other group of parties from trying to form a government. After three failed votes of confidence there has to be early elections.

But Babis has a good chance of being able to pass the first vote of confidence, so long as one party, or a group of deputies back him, and another party walks out of the chamber during the vote.

So far the Communists have offered to tolerate his government by walking out, and there is speculation the SPD will also do so. This will not be enough to win the vote as he would still need to win a majority of MPs in the chamber – ie 82 of the remaining 163 deputies – and he only has 78 at the moment.

On December 13, Babis’ cabinet will be sworn in. The list contains five ministers from the outgoing coalition government, together with new Ano appointments and unaffiliated experts, but Babis has been unable to persuade any big figures to join his government.

The finance minister will be the former deputy minister, Alena Schillerova, while the foreign minister will be Martin Stropnicky, the former defence minister, who is replaced in his post by Karla Slechtova, the former minister for regional government.

As of December 6, Babis has full prime ministerial powers and he will be able to start changing posts in the administration and state-owned companies. Usually most officials are kept in place, guaranteeing continuity, but Babis has promised an overhaul of government to improve efficiency and root out corruption, so there is some trepidation that he might start a purge. In particular, he could change personnel in key judicial positions such as the chief prosecutor, which could influence the investigation into his fraud case.

Babis has made few firm promises of what his government will do in office. This week he has reiterated plans for a massive boost in public investment. However, at the same time he has pledged to cut taxes and keep a tight budget. As finance minister until earlier this year he even ran a surplus, and the current budget draft, which was passed at first reading on December 5, maintains that policy, with a central government deficit of CZK50bn, which is CZK10bn less than that forecast for 2017. The whole general government will continue to be in surplus. 

He has also pledged to take a tougher line on migration than his predecessor, Social Democrat PM Bohuslav Sobotka, who resigned this week. He has said that addressing the refugee issue will be one of his main priori­ties.

“Our position on migration is clear,” Babis said after his appointment. “Our country should be more active and propose to the member states and the European Commission a solution to illegal migration. And that solution is a fight against human traffickers.”

The European Commission is expected to launch legal proceedings against the Czech Republic and other rebels on December 7 for their refusal to accept their quota of refugees under the EU’s plan to move them from frontline countries such as Greece and Italy.

“I will first have to negotiate and convince the European Commission not to sue us and to find a different solution,” Babis told a news conference after his appointment. “Quotas are not a solution, and the solution is outside Europe, and we have to win over other member states for this.”