Billionaire Czech minister’s party warns government coalition could end

The debate in the European Parliament was held in reaction to a leaked audio recording, allegedly catching ex-Vice Premier Andrej Babiš instructing a journalist employed by his media group on how to attack his political rivals. [YouTube]

The second-biggest party in the Czech government warned its partners yesterday (21 March) that the ruling coalition could crumble if deputies support legislation aimed at limiting politicians’ ownership in private companies.

The draft amendment, proposed by a deputy in the ruling Social Democrat party, would force future ministers to choose between giving up ownership in a firm or profiting from it and would also ban government officials from media ownership.

The proposal is part of conflict-of-interest legislation widely seen as targeting Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, a billionaire businessman who founded the ANO movement that sits in government.

After a leadership meeting on Monday, ANO said support for the bill would be a violation of the coalition agreement.

“If coalition partners continue this way, it will be them who can be responsible for ending coalition cooperation,” it said, according to CTK news agency.

The proposed legislation has jolted the two-year-old government led by Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. A number of deputies from his party and the Christian Democrats, the third coalition member, have said they would support the changes.

An ANO pull-out would not necessarily doom the government as it could survive with opposition support. A government fall would not automatically lead to an early election as the president could appoint another prime minister.

ANO finished a strong second behind the Social Democrats at the last election with promises to fight graft.

Babiš founded ANO, which is now the country’s most popular party in the polls, and he is seen as a contender to be prime minister after the next election in 2017.

He also owns the Agrofert group, which owns more than 200 companies spanning chemicals, farming, food and media.

This has led to widespread accusations of conflicts of interest because as finance minister he is a regulator and tax collector. Babiš has admitted conflicts of interest but has said he was not abusing them.

However, he has come under pressure to prove he did not flout rules in subsidies for a farm and event centre.

The opposition and Czech media have voiced suspicions that Stork Nest centre, which had anonymous owners, was controlled by Babiš at the time it received EU subsidies, before he entered politics. The aid was meant for small and medium-sized businesses and big groups like Agrofert would not qualify.

Babiš has denied wrongdoing. The lower house is due to hold a special session on the case on Wednesday.

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