Corruption cases pile pressure on Czech prime minister

Andrej Babis has had a tough year, and it’s not over yet.

Babis - reuters
Andrej Babis has been facing renewed calls for his resignation in the wake of corruption investigations [Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters]

Prague, Czech Republic – Prime Minister Andrej Babis is under renewed pressure after a week in which two major corruption cases delivered personal setbacks.

The billionaire premier had looked to have ridden out a tough 2019. He has faced a series of mass protests and a deep political crisis that threatened to topple the minority coalition led by his anti-establishment ANO party.

The government has appeared more stable in recent weeks than at any time since it was formed in mid-2018, but revived accusations of conflict of interest and criminal fraud threaten to rock it once more.

On Monday, local media reported a European Commission audit had confirmed Babis had a conflict of interest concerning EU subsidies paid to Agrofert, the agrochemicals conglomerate he put into trust two years ago.

Brussels could demand the Czech government repay up to 450 million koruny ($19.4m) of funds handed to the company since 2017. Analysts warn that the taxpayer would likely end up footing the bill.

“The Czech Republic must not pay for Agrofert’s subsidies,” Marketa Adamova, leader of the conservative Top 09 party, told Al Jazeera. “The company must pay them back itself.”

Two days later, the supreme state prosecutor announced he would revive a fraud investigation into a 50 million koruny ($2.2m) subsidy tapped a decade ago to build the Capi hnizdo (Stork’s Nest) leisure complex. The prosecutor’s action overturns a surprise decision in September to drop the case after four years of investigation.

The return of Babis’ legal troubles has produced a rare moment of cooperation among Czechia’s fragmented opposition parties. They say the prime minister must quit, warning his problems complicate the running of the country and threaten the independence of the investigations against him.

“It is unprecedented that a prime minister does not resign over such a case,” said Olga Richterova, deputy leader of the Pirate Party, the third-largest grouping in Parliament. “Andrej Babis must leave so we can focus on the problems of the country.”

Babis' refusal to resign is destroying the democratic and moral culture of our country

Vice President Benjamin Roll

However, with ANO remaining the strongest party in polls, Babis remains defiant. He insisted to local media that he had “no reason” to resign and that the EU would not get a penny back. He repeated claims that the Capi hnizdo case was “ordered by the political elite” that he deposed by winning elections in 2017.

Seeking to brazen it out, the prime minister said he would continue in efforts to push for higher EU funds and greater freedom in spending them during crunch European Council negotiations over the 2021-28 budget next week. He asserted that “the other members of European Council do not care about any conflict of interest”.

At the same time, some bizarre performances in Parliament this week suggest he is clearly rattled.

Opposition parties are likely to call for a vote of confidence in the coalition and the junior partner Social Democrats (CSSD) have yet to express clear support for the prime minister.

The government narrowly survived a similar vote in June. That was largely thanks to support from the communist KSCM, which was orchestrated by President Milos Zeman. The controversial head of state seeks leverage over the government, and could offer Babis an escape from jail, in the form of a presidential pardon, in the event of a conviction in the Capi hnizdo case.

Adding to the pressure this year have been mass protests warning that Babis and Zeman represent a threat to democracy. Over 200,000 rallied in Prague three weeks ago demanding Babis either sell Agrofert or resign.

Milion Chvelik, the student-led NGO that organises the protests, had said it would announce the next demonstration in January, but it has now called people to come onto the streets of the capital on December 10 – Human Rights Day. Protests around the country are then scheduled on December 16 and 19.

Vice President Benjamin Roll told Al Jazeera that while the December 10 rally will likely be smaller than other events, the renewed corruption cases will make it “louder”.

“We’re ready for extended protests,” he said. “Babis’ refusal to resign is destroying the democratic and moral culture of our country.”

Some media even report that Babis’ troubles are now provoking discontent within ANO itself. However, the party remains dominated by the billionaire who both founded and bankrolls it.

Source: Al Jazeera

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