April 9, 2018 / 7:07 PM / 2 years ago

Thousands protest against Czech PM as government talks stall

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Thousands of Czechs rallied on Monday to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, battling police charges and without parliamentary backing for his government.

Nearly six months after an election that Babis’s ANO party won by a large margin, the billionaire businessman is still seeking partners to govern and heads a caretaker minority cabinet after losing a confidence vote in January.

Coalition talks with the Social Democrats broke down last week in a spat over the allocation of ministries and Babis has not said what he will do next before meeting President Milos Zeman on Tuesday.

Most other parties have shunned Babis due to an alleged fraud of European Union subsidies worth 2 million euros ($2.5 million) a decade ago. He denies wrongdoing.

Several thousand protested on Prague’s Wenceslas Square on Monday, according to news agency CTK’s estimates, while more than 2,000 rallied in Brno, the country’s second largest city. Police did not provide official estimates. Protests took place in other cities and towns.

Protest organizers say someone facing criminal charges should not lead the government.

Besides the subsidy case, Slovak-born Babis has also fought to be cleared of a charge of cooperating with the communist-era secret police, a demand rejected by a court in Slovakia earlier this year.

Thousands protested in March against a Communist lawmaker being named head of a police oversight commission despite his past in a communist-era special unit. ANO has held talks with the Communist Party over support for a new government, and the protesters took aim at Babis.

On Monday, Babis told newspaper Lidove Noviny he would agree to another candidate from his ANO party leading a new government if proposed by President Milos Zeman, but that he did not expect such a move now.

His anti-establishment party, pledging to fight political graft and bring a business touch to government, won nearly three times as many votes as its nearest rival in last October’s election but lacks a majority in parliament.

Besides the Social Democrats, ANO could lean on support from the Communists and the far-right, anti-EU SPD party. But many ANO party members oppose such cooperation, especially with the SPD.

Markets have largely shrugged off the political stalemate, with the economy growing and public finances in surplus.

Reporting by Jason Hovet; editing by Andrew Roche

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