Czech president appoints Andrej Babis as new prime minister

Czech newly appointed Prime Minister Babis attends a news conference in Prague
Czech newly appointed Prime Minister Andrej Babis attends a news conference at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic December 6, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

December 6, 2017

By Petra Vodstrcilova

PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czech billionaire businessman Andrej Babis was appointed prime minister on Wednesday after his ANO party came first in an October election, and he must now focus on securing parliamentary backing for a minority administration.

Running on pledges to fight migration and make the state more efficient, ANO won 29.6 percent of the vote, nearly three times the support won by second-placed center-right Civic Democrats.

Despite that strong showing, however, it is unclear whether Babis will be able to win a confidence vote for his government by mid-January as required by the constitution. He also faces the threat of prosecution in connection with his business interests.

ANO holds 78 seats in the 200-seat lower house but has so far failed to win the backing of any of the other eight parties. Should he lose such a vote, Babis would stay in power until a new arrangement is found. But given his party’s size, it would also most likely have to lead any other arrangement.

In a televised ceremony on Wednesday, President Milos Zeman appointed Babis, 63, who set up ANO in 2011 as a protest movement when mainstream parties were embroiled in corruption scandals.

Babis’s new cabinet will take power on Dec. 13, allowing him to take part in a European Union leaders’ summit the following day.

He has pledged to keep the budget in shape but also boost infrastructure investments and public sector wages, and play a more active role in the European Union, especially in securing the EU’s external border to stop illegal migration.

The Czechs are facing a possible EU suit over refusing to accept migrants under an EU quota system, which Babis said was his first European task.

“I will first have to negotiate and convince the European Commission not to sue us and to find a different solution,” he told a news conference after his appointment.

“Quotas are not a solution, and the solution is outside Europe, and we have to win over other member states for this.”

LACKING VOTES

The far-right, anti-EU and anti-NATO SPD party and the Communists have lent ANO support in several initial votes in return for committee posts for their members, raising the prospect that they may have some kind of agreement to back ANO.

But Babis said on Wednesday he had no deal in place and would talk to all parties to either back the cabinet or abstain from the vote to help it win.

“In the week of Dec. 18, we will present the program manifesto and negotiate on whether someone will go into government with us or give us tolerance,” Babis said.

Rival parties have criticized Babis, the second-richest person in the country, worth $4 billion according to Forbes, for conflicts of interests. He owns a farming, chemicals, food and media group which has contracts with the state and receives European subsidies.

The main sticking point is a police request that parliament strip Babis of his immunity so he can be prosecuted for suspected fraud in tapping European Union subsidies. He denies any wrongdoing.

If police drop the case or parliament refuses to lift immunity, Babis may win some votes from other factions.

Analysts say a second attempt to form a cabinet, with or without Babis, may have a greater chance of success because many parties suffered losses in the October vote and are keen to avoid an early election, which a prolonged crisis could eventually lead to.

(Reporting by Petra Vodstrcilova; Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Hugh Lawson)