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Czech PM drops plan to resign, wants finance minister sacked


Prague: 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.

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 on 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 on 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 on Friday that he would “leave it up to the president” to decide his fate.

Prague-based political analyst Tomas Lebeda said 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 per cent approval rating according to an April CVVM poll. — AFP

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