Czech president to ask court to rule over sacking of finance minister

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech President Milos Zeman said on Thursday he would turn to the Constitutional Court to decide whether he must dismiss Finance Minister Andrej Babis as requested by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka.

Czech President Milos Zeman speaks to journalists at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic May 4, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Sobotka asked Zeman last Friday to dismiss Babis due to questions over his past tax dealings, but Zeman has not met the demand.

The president has had poor relations with Sobotka and proposed last week that Sobotka leaves and Babis, a billionaire businessman and founder of the anti-establishment ANO party, stays in the cabinet until an election due in October. On Thursday, he said both Babis and Sobotka could quit.

Sobotka has stood his ground and has said he may file a complaint with the Constitutional Court unless Zeman acts soon.

Zeman said on Thursday he would do the same and ask the court if the president must strictly follow a demand for a minister to be dismissed.

“Let’s leave it to the Constitutional Court... to decide, and I will of course respect the decision,” Zeman told a news conference during a trip to northern Czech Republic, shown live on Czech television.

Zeman was due to leave for a week-long trip to China later on Thursday. If he waits for the Constitutional Court to decide, the political stalemate could drag on for weeks.

The constitution simply says that the president dismisses a minister upon request by the prime minister.

Zeman has demanded that Sobotka first tears up a coalition agreement underpinning his three-party cabinet, and that he proposes a replacement.

Several constitutional lawyers have said the president cannot set conditions. Zeman said some experts had a different opinion.

The three parties in the center-left coalition - ANO, Sobotka’s center-left Social Democrats and the centrist Christian Democrats - said on Wednesday they wanted to keep the coalition together despite the row over Babis.

Sobotka has said Babis failed to clear suspicion that he dodged taxes when buying bonds from his company, Agrofert. Babis transferred Agrofert to a trust fund earlier this year.

The pressure on Babis grew after recordings anonymously published last week appeared to show him discussing the coverage of opponents with a reporter at a newspaper that is part of Agrofert group.

Babis has rejected allegations he dodged taxes or influenced news content. He called the accusations a political game by Sobotka whose party trails ANO by over 10 percentage points in opinion polls.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller; editing by Ed Osmond