Analyst: Control of Finance Ministry central to ongoing political battle

Andrej Babiš, Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK

Bohuslav Sobotka’s announcement that he would hand in the resignation of his government over Finance Minister Andrej Babiš’s alleged misconduct has been a bombshell on the political scene. Indeed, commentators are suggesting the prime minister’s move is a risky, all-or-nothing gamble. How are things likely to play out? And what role might President Zeman play in resolving the situation? I discussed those questions and more with political commentator Jiří Pehe.

Andrej Babiš,  Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
“I think that Mr. Sobotka was trying to convince President Zeman to accept his decision to dismiss Babiš. But he learned from Zeman that Babiš will stay, that Zeman will not play along, or go along.

“So in the end he decided to go for a very dramatic solution: the resignation of the entire government.

“He apparently hopes that this will create a situation in which he can somehow force Mr. Babiš out of the government or the Ministry of Finance.”

Of course much now depends on the president. Given the rivalry between Mr. Sobotka and Mr. Zeman, and given the president’s political skill, was it wise of the prime minister to put the ball in the president’s court like this?

“The question we have to ask is not whether Mr. Sobotka’s decision was wise, or tactical, or strategic, but whether he had any other choice.

“He had to do something. Obviously he ran into a wall when he proposed unofficially to the president that he would dismiss Mr. Babiš and learned that the president would not do so.

“He decided to go for the most dramatic option: the resignation of the entire government.

“He hopes that he would somehow persuade the president that he should somehow let this present government continue, or to name a new government in which Mr. Babiš will not be present.

“I think the main goal of Mr. Sobotka is to have a Ministry of Finance that is not controlled by Mr. Babiš.

“Because that is his only hope, that he can discredit Mr. Babiš before the elections. That is, if there is a new minister who is not tied to Mr. Babiš and is not Mr. Babiš himself, that minister could start an audit of his financial activities that could discredit Mr. Babiš.

Jiří Pehe | Photo: Jana Trpišovská,  Czech Radio
“But if Mr. Babiš stays at the ministry until the elections that will of course mean a defeat for Mr. Sobotka.

“So what is really at stake here is the Ministry of Finance and the position of Babiš at that ministry. That’s what this whole game is about.”

What about the timing of this? This isn’t the first financial scandal surrounding Andrej Babiš. For instance, the Čapí Hnízdo affair [in which the abuse of EU subsidies was alleged] was probably more comprehensible to the public. So why has Mr. Sobotka made this step now, especially so close to the next elections?

“I think Sobotka has decided to act now because the popularity of his own party is down. Mr. Babiš leads in the opinion polls by a large margin, so he decided that he had to do something.

“I am entirely convinced that if opinion polls were showing that the Social Democrats were tied with ANO or even on top of the polls, then Mr. Babiš would stay and Mr. Sobotka would not do anything.

“But at this point he decided that he had to do something.

“It is true that he missed his best opportunity to deal with Mr. Babiš resolutely during the Čapí Hnízdo affair, because that would be a scandal that could be understood by the Czech public.

“Now it’s all convoluted and the public may not understand what is going on. Because the question of the bonds that Mr. Sobotka is building his case against Babiš on is really very difficult to understand for an ordinary person.”

Obviously you don’t have a crystal ball, and one of Wednesday’s newspapers says there are six possible scenarios. But from what we know now, what do you believe is the most likely outcome of this situation?

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“I think the most likely outcome is that Mr. Zeman, the president, will go for some unorthodox solution. That’s his style.

“If indeed Mr. Sobotka goes ahead and offers the resignation of the entire government, then the ball is in Mr. Zeman’s half of the court and he will do whatever he wants.

“His main goal will be to protect Babiš, because Babiš is his main ally.

“So it is clear that whatever the situation will be, for instance a government of experts or the continuation of this government in some form, he will try to make sure Mr. Babiš stays in control of the Ministry of Finance.

“Because that is what this game is all about.”