December 13, 2017 / 1:12 PM / a year ago

Czech PM Babis takes office but so far lacks parliamentary backing

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman who ran on an anti-establishment ticket, took office with his cabinet on Wednesday, but it was unclear whether his tenure will survive a confidence vote next month.

Czech newly appointed Prime Minister Andrej Babis attends a news conference at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic December 6, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Babis, who built a business empire in food, farming, chemicals and media before entering politics in 2011, will have one month to gain confidence under the constitution for his minority government.

He said after being formally appointed by Czech President Milos Zeman, that the confidence vote should take place on Jan. 10.

Running on pledges to fight immigration and make the state more efficient, Babis’s ANO party won 29.6 percent of the vote in an October national election that saw the rise of other parties preaching against the establishment.

As finance minister over the past three years, Babis saw the central state budget swing to a surplus and has vowed to further cut public debt ratio to GDP, currently at a half of the European Union average.

His problem is that ANO holds just 78 seats in the 200-seat lower house and does not have the firm backing of any of the other eight parties.

The far-right, anti-EU SPD party and the far-left Communists have lent ANO support in initial parliamentary votes in return for committee posts, but no deal has been announced on their backing for the cabinet.

Babis will need a few parties to either support the cabinet or leave before the confidence vote to lower the threshold the government needs to pass.

Babis’s government includes non-partisan ministers, in line with his pledge to bring more managerial style to governance.

His first tack will be representing the country at the European Union summit on Thursday and Friday, where he will push for strengthening EU borders and stopping illegal migration.

SECOND CHANCE

If Babis loses the confidence vote, his government will stay in power until an alternative is formed. Zeman reiterated on Wednesday his willingness to give Babis a second try if the first attempt fails, and signaled this may be the way forward.

“(I have) the impression that several (parties) wanted to be coaxed, but in order not to lose their dignity or prestige, they will want to be coaxed only in the second round,” Zeman said.

Most parties have called for Babis himself to stay out of the government due to a police case looking at whether he illegally hid ownership of a farm and conference center a decade ago to get a 2 million euro ($2.35 million) EU subsidy meant for small businesses. Babis has denied any wrongdoing.

Some parties also criticize Babis for conflicts of interest as an owner of two national newspapers and a businessman whose firms have numerous contracts with the state and benefit from public aid.

He placed his firms into a trust fund earlier this year, overseen by his close collaborators and his wife.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis and Czech President Milos Zeman speak during the cabinet's inauguration at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic December 13, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Daily Hospodarske Noviny reported on Wednesday that the outgoing ruling party, the leftist Social Democrats, could support a Babis-led government in a second round of talks, if his first cabinet fails. It cited unnamed sources within that party.

The other member of the outgoing coalition, the Christian Democrats, have also said they could negotiate with ANO.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt

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