Row over Babiš' conflicts of interest set to spice up Czech presidential race

Row over Babiš' conflicts of interest set to spice up Czech presidential race
Billionaire Andrej Babis with his wife Monika.
By bne IntelliNews August 1, 2022

Czech Minister of Agriculture Zdenek Nekula has told Czech Radio that former premier Andrej Babis' Agrofert holding will have to return agricultural subsidies worth of up to CZK4.5 billion (approx. €183mn), and he indicated that more aid could be demanded back by other ministries. 

Nekula’s comments follow the European Commission officially concluding the probe into the billionaire's conflicts of interest, sparked already by Babis’ first ministerial stint in the cabinet of Social Democratic PM Bohuslav Sobotka (2014-2017) and then his own 2017-21 government.

During his time in government Babis' agro-chemicals holding continued to claim subsidies for projects, despite the fact that, according to the EU, he still exercised effective control of the holding and was was therefore in a conflict of interest. The EU has refused to reimburse the Czech government for money paid out to Babis while he was in a conflict of interest, leaving it to the government to recoup the misspent subsidies from Agrofert, the largest private recipient of subsidies in the country.

Nekula expects Agrofert to object to his ministry’s move and braces for legal battles ahead. Agrofert is likely to build its case around the looser standards of ownership and consequently conflict of interests under the then existing Czech legislation. Current opposition leader Babis and his fellow politicians from ANO have in the past dismissed the probes into ANO’s leader’s conflicts of interest as politicised. 

Babis’ ties to the Agrofert holding could well become one of the headlines in the Czech presidential campaign, with the election scheduled for January 13-14.  Babis' trial on fraud charges in the Stork's Nest case is also set to begin this autumn.

Babiš has been touring Czech regions as part of his “Times were better when Babis was in power” contact campaign for several weeks, though he has thus far not confirmed his presidential bid, possibly in an effort not to have expenses of the touring campaign count towards the presidential campaign caps. Readers of ANO's website are invited to set up a meeting with Andrej Babis at one of the upcoming stops across the country.  

According to a Median poll published on August 1, if the election were held now, Babiš would win the first round with 25.5% of the vote, with former Czech Army Chief of Staff Petr Pavel in second place with 21%, with trade union chief Josef Stredula trailing far behind in third place.

According to the IPSOS polling data, analyzed by Czech DenikN, Babis is the favourite of the campaign with 31.7% support, trailed by Pavel with 23.8% support and former Masaryk University Chancellor Danuse Nerudova with 10.8% support. 

Data from the same poll suggest that Babis would benefit from being the candidate for his populist ANO and from being acceptable to the far-right SPD electorate, which together elected 92 deputies in the Czech parliament of 200 legislators, whereas Pavel and Nerudova as well as other liberal candidates are often fighting for the same largely urban-centered electoral base.  The campaign is expected to hit full swing later in the autumn.