Czechs protest as leaders clash over billionaire finance chief

Dispute could lead to constitutional court case and early elections

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest rally against Czech finance minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman in Prague on Wednesday. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

Demonstrators hold placards during a protest rally against Czech finance minister Andrej Babis and President Milos Zeman in Prague on Wednesday. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

 

Thousands of Czechs have joined street protests over a political crisis that pits the country’s embattled premier against its billionaire finance minister and populist president, and could hasten parliamentary elections.

Prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka has tried to sack finance chief Andrej Babis due to allegations about his tax affairs, but president Milos Zeman refused to back the decision, in a move that is of questionable constitutional legality.

The impasse comes as polls suggest Mr Babis’s “anti-establishment” Ano party will easily defeat Mr Sobotka’s Social Democrats in October’s election, fuelling speculation that the premier may be trying to damage his rival’s chances.

Mr Sobotka sought Mr Babis’s dismissal over accusations of tax avoidance, but pressure has since grown on the tycoon with claims that he used his media outlets to smear and undermine other parties, including the Social Democrats.

Mr Babis denies the allegations and this year his Agrofert conglomerate – which incorporates hundreds of firms including two national newspapers and a radio station – was moved into a trust fund to comply with new conflict-of-interest law pushed through by the Social Democrats.

Mr Babis refused to resign and found an ally in Mr Zeman, a pugnacious populist who misses no opportunity to land a blow on Mr Sobotka and his party.

Even though the Czech constitution states that the president will dismiss a minister on the request of the prime minister, Mr Zeman stalled and set various conditions for his agreement before leaving on a week-long trip to China.

Mass rallies

Thousands of people rallied on Wednesday and Thursday in Prague and other Czech cities to demand the sacking of Mr Babis – who has been compared to US president Donald Trump and former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi – and to denounce Mr Zeman for what some lawyers say is a breach of the constitution.

Mr Sobotka and his allies have threatened to turn to the constitutional court to resolve the dispute, and Mr Zeman says he would accept the court’s judgment.

Mr Zeman and Mr Babis share a strong populist streak and opposition to EU plans for all member states to take a quota of refugees. Czech analysts say the president may be seeking the billionaire’s backing ahead of his re-election bid next year.

Earlier this month, Mr Sobotka announced that he would resign – a move that in previous years has automatically brought down the whole Czech government – to force Mr Babis from his post.

Mr Sobotka quickly backtracked however, fearing that Mr Zeman might treat the move differently, removing him but leaving the rest of the cabinet in place.

On Friday, Mr Babis suggested he might make way for his deputy, Alena Schillerova, but no final decision is likely until Mr Zeman returns to Prague next Thursday.