Fate of Czech government hangs in the balance over finance minister’s political future

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

The future of the Czech government hangs in the balance as country’s president and prime minister engage in a tug of war over one man – billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babiš who is suspected of having dodged taxes and influenced media coverage in a daily he formerly owned against political rivals. The president has said he cannot dismiss Andrej Babiš from office until the prime minister terminates the coalition agreement on which the ruling coalition stands.

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK
The political future of Andrej Babiš has put the fate of the Czech government at stake just six months ahead of the country’s general elections. Aware of the difficulties of dislodging the leader of one of the coalition parties and presently the most popular politician in the country, Prime Minister Sobotka first attempted to bring down the government “in defence of political ethics”. When the move was thwarted by President Zeman he backtracked on the plan and proposed the dismissal of Finance Minister Andrej Babiš instead.

As expected, President Miloš Zeman is not making the move easy. Although according to Czech law, the president is bound to act on the prime minister’s request, Mr. Zeman has put forward a number of objections, noting that it would be irresponsible to sack a minister without knowing who would succeed him and saying that such a dismissal could only be valid if it were preceded by the termination of the coalition agreement on which the ruling coalition stands.

Milan Štěch, photo: Jan Bartoněk
The stated conditions have raised the ire of the prime minister’s Social Democrats. Mr. Sobotka called on the head of state to respect the constitution and the speaker of the Senate Milan Štěch made it clear that if he failed to do so the upper house would file a complaint against the president for violating the constitutional order.

“I have no doubt at all that Finance Minister Andrej Babiš will be recalled from office. That is what the constitution decrees and the president has no alternative but to comply. Should he fail to do so then the Senate will most certainly act.”

Constitutional court lawyers agree that the president’s conditions are not legally valid. They point out that a coalition agreement does not stand above the constitution and even if Andrej Babiš’ dismissal violates the terms of the coalition agreement, that is not a matter for the president to resolve. According to the constitution he is bound to respect the prime minister’s proposal.

Miloš Zeman, Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK
Meanwhile, a meeting of the ruling coalition parties has been called for Wednesday where the finance minister’s dismissal, his possible replacement and the future shape of the government will be discussed. Andrej Babiš has already said he considers the coalition agreement “dead” and has stated that he will want guarantees that the candidate nominated by his ANO party to succeed him will be accepted. However, the party itself has made no guarantees that its ministers will remain in office following the sacking of their party chief and it is not clear how the termination of the coalition agreement would affect the rest of the government’s term in office. The parties in question will have plenty of time to discuss these issues, since President Zeman has indicated he will not move to resolve the crisis until after his visit to China which ends on May 18th.