Czech cabinet set to survive test over pandemic and PM's business affairs

Russia- and China-friendly Czech president Milos Zeman also under fire

Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s prime minister, speaks ahead of a government no-confidence vote at the Czech parliament  in Prague.  Photographer: Milan Jaros/Bloomberg

Andrej Babis, the Czech Republic’s prime minister, speaks ahead of a government no-confidence vote at the Czech parliament in Prague. Photographer: Milan Jaros/Bloomberg

 

The Czech government was poised to survive a no-confidence vote over its handling of the pandemic and alleged conflict of interest between billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis’s business and political lives.

Opponents of Mr Babis’s populist cabinet lost hope of securing the 101 votes in parliament needed to oust him when Communist deputies, who recently withdrew their informal support for his government, left the chamber during Thursday’s debate.

Liberal and centre-right opposition parties, who hope to beat Mr Babis’s Ano party in parliamentary elections this autumn, lambasted the government for its response to coronavirus, which has claimed more lives per capita in the Czech Republic than in almost any other country in the world.

“In the past year a coronavirus pandemic has killed 30,000 of our fellow citizens ... which puts the Czech Republic in a disastrous place in the ranking of countries that have managed the pandemic worst. The cabinet failed in virtually everything,” said Petr Fiala, leader of the Civic Democrats (ODS).

Opposition parties also berated Mr Babis over allegations now being examined by Czech prosecutors that his firm fraudulently accessed European Union funds, and over an EU audit’s findings that his company should not have received certain subsidies from Brussels due to conflict of interest.

“I have no conflict of interest ... I comply and I have always complied with all legal regulations,” Mr Babis declared, insisting he had put his sprawling Agrofert business empire fully into trust when he was finance minister in early 2017.

“The European Commission cannot interpret Czech law. The Czech Republic will not return any money. It’s all nonsense,” he added, in a speech that struck the populist, anti-migrant and Eurosceptic notes that helped him become premier in December 2017.

Opinion polls

Mr Babis tore into the opposition Pirate Party which, in alliance with the party of Mayors and Independents, is now leading Ano in opinion polls and could potentially take power after the elections in coalition with a group of centre-right parties including ODS.

“We don’t want the European Parliament to control our country. Nobody from abroad will stick his nose in here...We don’t want a multicultural, eco-fanatic Pirate-stan,” Mr Babis said.

Despite occasional disagreements, Mr Babis still enjoys support from Czech president Milos Zeman, who regularly denounces the EU and migrants, and supports closer ties with Russia and China.

The security committee of the Czech senate, the country’s upper house of parliament, on Wednesday found Mr Zeman unfit for office following his repeated criticism of the country’s intelligence services and his querying of recent findings that Russian spies were involved in a deadly 2014 explosion at a Czech arms depot.

The full senate will now debate the committee’s decision, which Mr Zeman’s spokesman described as “an attack on constitutionality, freedom, and democracy” and “an organised attempt at a state coup”.