June 22, 2018 / 5:12 PM / 6 months ago

Czech party backs down in row over foreign minister to allow government formation

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czech center-left Social Democrat party chief Jan Hamacek said on Friday he was ready to back down in a dispute over the party’s nomination for foreign minister to remove the main remaining obstacle to forming a new coalition government.

The Social Democrats have agreed to join a minority cabinet together with the centrist ANO party led by billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis.

But the plan hit a hurdle when pro-Russian President Milos Zeman, who formally appoints ministers on recommendation of the prime minister, refused to appoint senior Social Democrat Miroslav Poche as foreign minister.

Zeman has said Poche was too soft in rejecting immigrants from entering the country that is among the most hostile in the EU to asylum seekers. Poche holds largely mainstream pro-European views, and had backed Zeman’s main rival in a presidential election in January.

Hamacek said after meeting Zeman on Friday that if Zeman does not appoint Poche, he was ready to temporarily take on the foreign ministry position, in addition to being interior minister, while looking for a compromise candidate.

“This is a solution that will allow us to move to the appointment of the government, a vote of confidence, and overcome this problem,” Hamacek told reporters.

A government formed by ANO and the Social Democrats would have only 93 seats in the 200-seat lower hose of parliament, and plans to rely on the pro-Russian, anti-NATO Communist party to clear a vote of confidence that every new government must call.

ANO won last October’s election with nearly 30 percent of the vote but most mainstream parties have refused to be in a government with Babis.

They say he has conflicts of interests due to his extensive farming, food, chemicals and media business which Babis has moved to a trust fund to meet legal requirements for cabinet members.

Babis also faces police charges of fraud in tapping European Union subsidies. He denies any wrongdoing and calls the investigation a plot by his adversaries although the EU’s anti-fraud body OLAF has also found irregularities in the 2 million euro payment a decade ago.

Babis has said he would keep the country on a pro-western course despite the pro-Russian leanings of Zeman and the Communists.

Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Peter Graff

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