Billionaire Czech finance minister under fire

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babis attend a parliamentary session in Prague, Czech Republic, May 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters

PRAGUE - The Czech Republic's finance minister came under heavy fire in parliament Wednesday over his business dealings and leaked conversations that led the prime minister to try to sack him last week.

Andrej Babis, the second wealthiest Czech, leads the centrist ANO (Yes) movement which opinion polls show headed for victory in legislative elections later this year. 

But he is at the centre of a week-long political crisis sparked by doubts over his business dealings, which the tycoon insists are all legal.  

"I'd like to ask the Czech public: stop believing that when someone's rich, he's a safer choice," Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek of the leftist CSSD party, which governs in coalition with the smaller ANO and the Christian Democrats, told parliament.

"When people like you (Babis) enter politics, it's a huge danger," Zaoralek added, during the special parliamentary sitting called to address Babis' alleged wrongdoing.

Babis shot back calling the debate "a live execution" and "another mega-campaign against me."

Parliament had asked him to explain how he raised the money to buy his sprawling Agrofert farming, chemicals and media conglomerate.

He came under further pressure on the streets, with tens of thousands of protesters turning out at rallies in several Czech cities. 

Leaked conversations

A Slovak-born self-made magnate, Babis has become the EU state's most popular politician by selling himself and the party he forged in 2012 as being tough on corruption, something voters perceive as pervasive in the often murky world of Czech politics.

Questions have also been raised about Babis' purchase of tax-free bonds issued by Agrofert, with critics insisting that as a finance minister fighting tax evasion, he should not benefit from tax loopholes.

Babis is also under fire over leaked conversations revealing that he pressured a journalist from his media group to attack political rivals.

The 62-year-old Babis has refused to comment on the leaks.

In a statement published late Wednesday, the parliament said Babis had "repeatedly lied and abused his media to compromise his political rivals."

Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP the scandal could dent his popularity.

"The recordings... prove he's a liar," said Mlejnek, recalling that Babis vowed in 2013 to "never meddle in editorial matters."

A bad minister

So far Babis' ANO movement has led opinion polls, with support reaching as high as 30 percent, twice as much as Sobotka's CSSD.

Mlejnek said the current crisis was also partly triggered by the CSSD as an early campaign move ahead of the October 20-21 elections.

"They (CSSD) didn't want to end up in opposition with ANO winning the election, so they decided to attack Babis hard, even at the cost of destroying the (coalition's) cabinet," he said.

The latest crisis in often turbulent Czech politics began on May 2 when CSSD head and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka tendered his entire government's resignation in a bid to oust Babis.

But days later Sobotka withdrew the resignation and demanded President Milos Zeman to just axe Babis instead, a move the veteran leftist has so far refused.

The parliament on Wednesday also called on Zeman to act "without unnecessary delays."

Meanwhile, protesters took to the streets in several Czech cities, slamming both Zeman and Babis at rallies that drew tens of thousands late Wednesday.

"Babis is a bad minister," writer Ivan Binar told AFP at a rally in Prague's central Wenceslas Square.

"The president is leading our country to the East, and I would hate to go there. We already were there once and that was enough," he added, referring to four decades of totalitarian Communist rule in former Czechoslovakia.


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