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article imageTycoon-led Czech cabinet loses confidence vote

By Jan FLEMR (AFP)     Jan 16, 2018 in World

The new Czech minority cabinet led by billionaire Andrej Babis lost a parliamentary confidence vote on Tuesday, after lawmakers spurned the populist who has been charged with EU subsidy fraud.

"The parliament refused to voice confidence in the cabinet," parliament speaker Radek Vondracek said, rejecting the government in a vote of 117 to 78. All those in favour were members of Babis's ANO (YES) movement.

President Milos Zeman has promised the prime minister another try at forming a government, but he insisted that Babis should prove he has the necessary backing for his second cabinet.

Campaigning on an anti-corruption, anti-euro and anti-migrant ticket, Babis, dubbed the "Czech Trump", and his ANO party came out on top in October's general election, far outstripping eight other elected parties.

But potential coalition partners have snubbed the Slovak-born billionaire, suspicious of his communist past and recent police charges over alleged fraud, which Babis flatly denies.

The mogul, whom Forbes pegs as the second wealthiest Czech citizen, has been charged with breaking EU subsidy rules back in 2007.

Babis allegedly pulled the Stork Nest farm out of his sprawling Agrofert chemicals, food and media holding to make it eligible for an EU subsidy granted to small companies, before eventually returning it to the holding.

Just before the confidence vote, the 63-year-old premier asked parliament to strip him of immunity, insisting that "no one stole anything, there was no corruption."

"We live in a country with bodies that can lead an independent investigation," he said.

ANO said it expected parliament to meet on lifting immunity for Babis on January 23.

- Presidential election -

Party leaders in the EU member state of 10.6 million people, where corruption is perceived to be rife, have shunned Babis over the fraud charges, forcing him to form a minority cabinet of ANO members and unaffiliated experts.

Zeman, who named Babis prime minister in December, said he would give the tycoon a second shot to win over parliament.

Under the constitution, the president has two attempts to decide who will form the government, leaving the third and final try to parliament speaker Vondracek, who is an ally of Babis.

The prime minister said his first government would formally resign on January 17 but will continue to exist in practice as he puts together a new team.

The pro-Russian Zeman clinched pole position in round one of a presidential election last weekend, setting up a challenging run-off against pro-European Jiri Drahos on January 26-27.

Analyst Jiri Pehe told AFP a victory for Zeman might "pave the way for a deeper alliance with Andrej Babis, which could lead to a change in some basic parameters of liberal democracy in the country."

But he believes that Babis's chances to govern could be torpedoed should Drahos become president.

"Drahos has made it very clear that a prosecuted man should not be prime minister," Pehe said.

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