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Czech prime minister holds on to party leadership before election battle
March 10, 2017 / 3:33 PM / 5 months ago

Czech prime minister holds on to party leadership before election battle

Visegrad Group (V4) member nation Czech Republic's Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks at a news conference during a summit in Warsaw, Poland March 2, 2017.Kacper Pempel

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, facing an uphill battle to win a parliamentary election this year, stepped up attacks on his ruling coalition rival on Friday as he won his party's leadership contest.

Sobotka's Social Democrats have lost ground to the ANO movement led by billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, whose push to root out corruption and run the state like one of his many businesses has appealed to voters.

To regain voters, the leftist prime minister is focussing his party back to defence of social policies and the working class while raising taxes on big businesses and the rich to set it apart from his opponent.

"We are a pillar for normal working people in this country and they can always count on us," Sobotka told a national party convention before going on to regain its chairmanship with 67 percent of delegates' votes.

"Andrej Babis is not a socially sensitive billionaire. He is a man who does not like democracy," he added.

Social Democrats have criticised Babis for conflicts of interest and say he is concentrating too much power. The party supported legislation last year banning future ministers from media ownership and their companies from receiving state subsidies.

Babis, the country's second richest tycoon with assets worth $2.7 billion and business holdings spanning chemicals, food and media, reacted to Sobotka's comments that he did not like democracy by asking how the two could have sat together in government, CTK news agency reported.

The two parties will clash mainly over taxation, where the Social Democrats propose tax cuts for most employees and small companies, compensating for the drop in revenue by raising taxes on large companies and people earning higher wages.

ANO, in response, has pledged not to raise taxes.

Even if Sobotka's party is able to wipe out Babis's double-digit lead in polls before the election in October, President Milos Zeman has the authority to choose the next prime minister to form a government.

Zeman, who announced his 2018 re-election bid earlier on Friday, has been critical of Sobotka and has a warmer relationship with Babis.

Reporting by Robert Muller, editing by Ed Osmond

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