Czech lawmakers vote to force PM candidate Babis to face fraud charges

 06 Sep 2017 - 19:26

Czech lawmakers vote to force PM candidate Babis to face fraud charges
Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis arrives at Prague Castle, to meet with President Milos Zeman in Prague, Czech Republic May 3, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny/File Photo

By Jan Lopatka & Robert Muller / Reuters

PRAGUE: Czech lawmakers voted on Wednesday to let police bring fraud charges against Andrej Babis, the leading candidate to become prime minister in next month’s elections.

Babis, a billionaire businessman and founder of the poll-leading ANO party, denies allegations that he hid ownership of one of his firms to receive a 50-million Czech crown ($2.29-million) EU subsidy meant for small business in 2008.

The 63-year-old former finance minister has dismissed a police investigation into the case as a ploy by political and business adversaries to chase him out of politics.

“You will not silence me, intimidate me, stop me. And you will not get rid of me,” Babis told parliament before MPs overwhelmingly voted to lift the immunity from prosecution granted to lawmakers.

He ended up backing the motion himself, saying he wanted to clear his name, though other ANO party deputies boycotted the vote.

“So, give me up. I ask you to lift my immunity so that the truth can be revealed,” he told the lower house.

POLITICAL FIGHT

Wednesday’s decision, backed by 123 to four, does not stop Babis from standing in the Oct. 20-21 election. But it could dent his support.

Several potential coalition partners have said they could not work with a prime minister charged with a crime.

Babis’s ANO party, a junior member in a Social Democrat-led government, leads opinion polls by a double-digit margin - though there have been no major surveys taken since the police requested his immunity be lifted on Aug. 10.

The party has promised to revamp politics and root out what Babis calls mafia-like networks of business and political interests.

Governments led by the traditional parties - the centre-right Civic Democrats and the centre-left Social Democrats - brought the country into NATO and the European Union but lost many voters in recent years amid a series of corruption scandals.

Babis’s adversaries argue he got rich in the environment that he now criticises, often doing business with the state.

His Agrofert group is the biggest Czech private employer with more than 30,000 staff. The subsidy under investigation, was paid for building a conference centre near Prague called Stork Nest, before Babis entered politics.

The police investigation is expected to last well beyond the October vote and Babis will win immunity again if reelected to parliament, as expected, which would force the police to ask again for permission to charge him.

($1 = 21.8740 Czech crowns)

(Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens)