November 29, 2017 / 2:20 PM / 15 days ago

Czech government resigns, making way for election winner Babis

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech centre-left government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka stepped down on Wednesday, making way for billionaire Andrej Babis, who won an election last month, to take power in time for an EU summit in December.

The leader of ANO party Andrej Babis leaves Prague Castle after a meeting with President Milos Zeman in Prague, Czech Republic November 28, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

“The government approved its resignation, the resignation will be delivered to the president today,” Sobotka told reporters after a regular government session.

Sobotka’s coalition government was the first in 15 years to complete a full four-year term and presided over robust economic growth that helped cut unemployment to the lowest level in the EU and push up wages at the fastest pace in a decade.

However, voters tired of politics as usual opted for anti-establishment candidates, punishing traditional parties at the polls.

Babis’s ANO party, with pledges to fight political corruption and run the state with a business touch, was the biggest benefactor of this shift despite being part of the outgoing cabinet with Sobotka’s Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats.

ANO has failed to convince any of the other eight parliamentary parties to join a coalition. Babis has instead sought a minority cabinet, expected to be appointed by President Milos Zeman on Dec. 13 and take power immediately.

This would enable Babis to attend the summit of EU leaders on Dec. 14-15, where the main topic will be progress in negotiations with Britain over its departure from the EU.

Parties have shunned Babis, a businessman worth $4 billion and ranked by Forbes as the second richest Czech, because of police charges he illegally received a 2 million euro EU subsidy a decade ago for a farm and convention centre by hiding ownership. He denies any wrongdoing.

As a lawmaker, he has immunity from prosecution, which the outgoing parliament voted to suspend but which comes into effect again with the new parliament. Some lawmakers who voted to allow him to face prosecution in the past have hinted they will uphold his immunity, suspending proceedings for this parliamentary term.

Only the small Communist party has said so far that it could consider tolerating Babis’s minority government, but its 15 votes are not enough to secure victory in a confidence vote in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies, where ANO holds 78 seats.

Initial votes in the new parliament have shown ANO voting along with the Communists as well as the far-right, anti-EU and anti-NATO SPD party, but the latter has so far said it would not give backing or tolerance to Babis in a confidence vote.

Once appointed prime minister, Babis would remain in the position even if he loses a confidence vote, pending talks on an alternative solution.

Reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; Editing by Peter Graff

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