Czech PM Sobotka to resign after dispute with billionaire finance minister

Czech Prime Minister Premier Bohuslav Sobotka [European Council]

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka announced on Tuesday (2 May) he would submit his resignation – which also entails that of his cabinet – after a row with his popular billionaire finance minister, whose business activities have caused a storm.

“I will shortly present my resignation to President Milos Zeman. It is unacceptable for Andrej Babis to stay on as finance minister,” said Sobotka, in an announcement six months before an October election.

“I want to free the hands of coalition parties so they can launch negotiations on a solution to the situation or agree on the organisation of earlier elections,” he added.

Having taken office in 2014, Sobotka’s leftist CSSD has shared power in a three-member coalition government with Babis’s centrist ANO and the smaller centre-right KDU-CSL Christian Democratic parties.

Presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek declined immediate comment. Under the Czech constitution, there is no deadline for the president to accept the government’s resignation.

Contacted by AFP, political analysts in Prague said that an early election was unlikely to be called during the summer, pointing instead to the possibility of a minority caretaker government being installed until the October ballot.

Ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic’s second most wealthy citizen, Babis ran the sprawling Agrofert conglomerate before putting his assets into a trust earlier this year to ward off conflict of interest allegations.

Last week Sobotka asked Babis to clarify his past use of some €55 million worth of tax-free bonds in connection with Agrofert operations.

Babis has alleged that Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, a member of Sobotka’s CSSD, ordered police to investigate his business dealings, an allegation the minister has flatly denied.

Babis, who has ruled out any wrongdoing, is riding high in opinion polls, with ANO scoring 33.5% support compared to just 16% for Sobotka’s CSSD in a survey conducted by the CVVM pollsters in April.

Babis is also the Czech Republic’s most popular politician with a 56% approval rating according to another April survey by the CVVM pollsters, compared to 39% and sixth spot for Sobotka.

The billionaire politician has insisted that Sobotka’s move to question his business dealings was part of the “political battle” ahead of the 20-21 October general election and dismissed any allegations against him as “lies or half-truths”.

Sobotka’s resignation gives the initiative to President Milos Zeman, who has the power to appoint a new prime minister. An early election can be called if ruling and opposition parties in parliament agree to bring the vote forward.

Zeman’s office has no immediate comment on Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s decision to step down, Zeman’s spokesman said on Twitter.

Sobotka said he would seek a meeting with Zeman to agree on the timing of his resignation.

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