November 23, 2018 / 3:41 PM / 25 days ago

Czechs protest after government survives no-confidence vote

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Thousands of Czechs protested in Prague on Friday after the government survived a vote of no-confidence called to try to dismiss Prime Minister Andrej Babis over a fraud investigation.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis attends a parliamentary session during a no-confidence vote for the government he leads, in Prague, Czech Republic, November 23, 2018. REUTERS/David W Cerny

The result had been expected after the centre-left Social Democrats, partner of Babis’s ANO in the minority administration, and the far-left Communists both refused earlier this week to vote with the opposition.

Nonetheless, thousands joined the protests that had been called earlier in the week in the historic centre of the capital, chanting “We want a decent government” and other slogans, with banners calling on Babis to resign.

Babis, a billionaire businessman, has since last year battled police charges that he hid ownership of one of his firms, transferring it to his adult children a decade ago so it could receive a 2 million euro EU grant that was meant for small businesses and not big corporations.

He denies any wrongdoing and calls the investigation a campaign to force him out of politics.

If the case was brought to court and Babis was found guilty, he could face several years in jail.

People have been protesting since last week, when a news report by www.seznam.cz showed the prime minister’s adult son saying Babis wanted him to hide in 2017 from being questioned.

The son also said he was taken to the Russian-annexed Crimea against his will last year by his assistant.

Babis has said his son, who lives in Switzerland, was being treated for mental illness and that he had travelled to Crimea voluntarily. Police were looking into the son’s complaint after ruling earlier there was no suspicion of a crime.

While Friday’s vote failed - the opposition motion fell nine votes short of the 101 needed in the 200-seat lower house - it exposed the EU and NATO country government’s vulnerability due to Babis’s legal woes.

The Social Democrats, who have five ministers in the cabinet, abstained in the vote rather than voting actively to support it, after pleading in vain with Babis to step down and propose a replacement from his own party.

The opposition demanded Babis to step aside.

“The government should be led by an ethical, moral and honest person who has credit even with his political opponents,” Ivan Bartos, head of the opposition Pirate Party told parliament before the vote. “I do not see such person at the helm of this government.”

Additional reporting by David Cerny; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alison Williams

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