Czech finance minister proposes deputy replace him as solution to crisis

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis said on Friday his deputy Alena Schillerova should replace him, proposing her appointment as a way out of a row that has destabilized the government.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babis attend a parliamentary session in Prague, Czech Republic, May 10, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has demanded that Babis, a billionaire businessman, is dismissed by President Milos Zeman due to allegations he may have dodged taxes and influenced content at a newspaper he owned. Babis has denied any wrongdoing.

Zeman has been delaying the dismissal, proposing that Sobotka - his long-term rival - quit as well. Sobotka has refused and called on the president to act promptly.

Babis said he would accept being dismissed eventually, and suggested the political crisis would end if an agreement on his replacement was reached.

“I do not want to be bone of contention between the president and the prime minister. The best solution is for the prime minister to accept our nominee,” Babis told reporters at a briefing broadcast live by a journalist from news website

“Once the president returns (next Thursday from a trip to China) and accepts our nominee, this whole scandal started by the prime minister can end.”

Pressure has grown on Babis since 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 denied influencing news content and called the accusations a political game by the prime minister.

Thousands of people protested against Babis and the president in Prague and other cities on Wednesday.

Sobotka, head of the center-left Social Democrats, has said he would leave the ministry to Babis’s ANO party but their next nominee must not be connected with Agrofert, a firm Babis owned until transferring it to a trust fund earlier this year.

Sobotka wants to probe whether Babis’s purchases of tax-free bonds from Agrofert in the past years were legal.

Schillerova worked in the finance ministry’s tax department for many years and has been Babis’s deputy since 2016. It was not clear if she would be acceptable to Sobotka.

An agreement on new minister would also need acceptance from the president. He said on Thursday he would turn to the constitutional court to decide if he must accede to the prime minister’s request to fire a cabinet member.

Sobotka’s party trails ANO by over 10 percentage points in opinion polls ahead of national elections due in October.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Robert Muller; Editing by Hugh Lawson and John Stonestreet