Czech lawmakers vote to boost army deployments in Baltics

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech lawmakers on Friday approved government plans to raise the number of troops on foreign missions with their NATO allies, with Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s ANO party pushing the mandate through over Communist protests on deployments in the Baltics.

Babis is counting on support from the Communist Party for a new government he is forming with the Social Democrats.

Before the vote, some Communist officials said their 15 lawmakers will not back such a coalition if Czech troops were sent to the Baltics as part of NATO efforts to strengthen the alliance’s eastern flank with Russia.

However, Communist leader Vojtech Filip told CTK news agency the party was not ready to end talks with Babis’s ANO party despite its anti-NATO stance.

The mandate increases Czech troop numbers in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations and also extends a deployment in the Baltics, where up to 290 troops will join the NATO operation.

The upper house of parliament, the Senate, approved the expansion of foreign missions in May.

Babis said on Twitter after the vote the country was meeting its NATO obligations and played down “media hysteria” over the vote.

A billionaire businessman before entering politics in 2011, Babis has struggled to gain partners while he fights police charges that he illegally gained EU subsidies meant for small businesses a decade ago. He denies wrongdoing.

The ANO party won the most seats in an October election but lacks a majority. A coalition with the Social Democrats would have 93 of 200 lower house seats, leaving it dependent on the Communists’ parliamentary votes as well.

Babis is heading a caretaker one-party government at the moment after his cabinet lost a confidence vote in January.

But he will have a second chance at a vote when President Milos Zeman will appoint him prime minister again on June 6.

Meanwhile the Social Democrats are holding an internal referendum on joining a coalition with ANO. The result is expected in mid-June. The Communist party is also expected to decide on its allegiance by the end of June.

Babis had said on Thursday he expected to hold a confidence vote on the ANO-Social Democrat coalition sometime after July 10.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Jason Hovet and Richard Balmforth