Czech PM withdraws resignation, wants finance minister sacked
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka withdrew his planned resignation on Friday, calling instead for the dismissal of his billionaire finance minister, a popular political rival, over suspicions of fraud.
The move deepened a political crisis triggered by Sobotka’s shock resignation announcement earlier this week amid a high-stakes row with Finance Minister Andrej Babis.
The 62-year-old Babis is head of the centrist ANO party which is tipped to win parliamentary elections scheduled for October 20-21 in the EU and NATO member of more than 10 million people.
“I will not present my resignation. I will soon ask the president of the republic to recall the finance minister,” Sobotka told reporters in Prague.
Sobotka changed his mind about quitting after President Milos Zeman made it clear he would opt to only replace him as prime minister and leave intact the rest of the government, including his arch-rival Babis.
– ‘Ridiculous’ manoeuvering –
Last week Czech media reports had been rife with speculation that Sobotka, who heads the flagging CSSD Social Democrats, was poised to sack Babis himself.
But saying he did not want to make the tycoon look like a “martyr”, Sobotka tendered his entire government’s resignation instead, a move that appears to have badly backfired on him.
Presidential spokesman Jiri Ovcacek said Friday that Zeman “was in no rush” to push through changes, adding that he would be travelling from May 9-18, including a visit to China.
“We’ll analyse the situation after that,” he added.
Babis called Sobotka’s manoeuvring “ridiculous”, telling reporters Friday that “the prime minister has changed his mind for the fourth time in a few hours, I don’t get it”.
Czech politics were plunged into crisis on Tuesday when Sobotka, 45, said he would tender his government’s resignation amid the row with Babis over alleged financial fraud, which the tycoon has flatly denied.
Ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic’s second most wealthy citizen, Babis ran the sprawling Agrofert conglomerate before putting his assets into a trust earlier this year to ward off conflict of interest allegations.
Sobotka has questioned the way Babis had raised money to buy tax-free bonds for Agrofert and insisted that as a finance minister fighting tax evasion, Babis should not benefit from tax loopholes.
Zeman waded into the crisis on Thursday saying he would likely tap either the foreign or interior minister — both members of Sobotka’s CSSD — to replace him as prime minister, making it clear Babis could remain finance minister.
The tycoon for his part told reporters Friday that he would “leave it up to the president” to decide his fate.
– ‘Huge error’ –
Prague-based political analyst Tomas Lebeda told AFP that Sobotka had become the victim of his own “ill conceived decision”, calling his move to quit a “huge error” just months ahead of a general election.
“Instead of putting pressure on the president and the finance minister, the prime minister put himself under pressure,” Lebeda said, adding that it was “extremely difficult to make any predictions.”
Babis is the Czech Republic’s most popular politician, with a 56 percent approval rating according to an April CVVM poll, compared with 39 percent for Sobotka, in sixth place.
Since Monday babis has also been at the centre of scandal over the leaking online of recorded conversations said to reveal him putting pressure on a local journalist to attack his political rivals.
The Slovak-born self-made businessman has worked to present himself and the ANO (Yes) party he set up 2012 as being tough on corruption, something voters perceive as pervasive in often murky Czech politics.
Sobotka has been in office since 2014, with his CSSD Social Democrats sharing power in a coalition government with the ANO and the smaller centre-right KDU-CSL Christian Democrats.
Parliament will hold an extraordinary session next Wednesday, with the opposition seeking clarity on the political situation.