Tensions are running high in the Czech ruling coalition over a proposed conflict of interests bill which would ban government officials from business and media ownership. The bill is widely seen as targeting ANO leader, billionaire businessman and Finance Minister Andrej Babiš. His party has closed ranks around Mr. Babiš, warning its coalition partners that support for the bill could topple the ruling coalition.
A protracted conflict of interests debate concerning Finance Minister Andrej Babis whose powerful conglomerate involves 200 companies as well as several media outlets, reached a head with the scandal surrounding dubious EU subsidies for his Stork’s Nest farm and conference centre. The opposition parties want to call a no-confidence vote in the government over the scandal at Wednesday’s Parliament session and Mr. Babiš’s coalition partners, who quietly tolerated the minister’s frequent conflicts of interest, have now vowed to support a bill which would prevent powerful business people from entering the government. In a debate on Czech Television Social Democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka said the matter had to be addressed.
“We cannot close our eyes to what is happening here. We cannot ignore the consequences of this conflict of political and economic interests.”
It was in fact a member of the ruling Social Democrats, deputy Jan Chvojka, who drafted the proposed conflict of interest legislation which would limit politicians’ ownership in private companies and ban government officials from media ownership. At a press conference following a meeting of the ANO party leadership on Monday, deputy chair Jaroslav Faltýnek warned that support for the bill could bring down the government.
“The draft bill put forward by deputy Jan Chvojka is in violation of the coalition agreement signed and if our partners in government continue in this manner then they may find themselves responsible for the break-up of the coalition government.”
The ANO party, which gained unexpected support in the last general elections, has pitted itself against the established parties as a party of business leaders who have proved themselves capable in other professions. The party claims the attacks against its leader are due to the fact that the established parties do not like some of the unconventional changes introduced by Mr. Babis who professed he would run the country as if it were his own firm. Mr. Faltýnek moreover says efforts to expel successful business leaders from the government go against article 11 of the constitution which guarantees individuals the right to property.
If the conflict of interests bill is approved it would be binding for future administrations and would give cabinet ministers 60 days in which to sell their ownership rights. Mr. Babiš, who recently joked that he would marry his long-term partner and sign the multi-billion conglomeration over to her, does not appear overly concerned about the possible impact on his political career telling journalists “my voters knew who I was and they still chose to give me their vote.”