Czech prime minister announces government resignation

PRAGUE (AP) — The Czech prime minister unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that his government will resign over unexplained business dealings of his rival Andrej Babis, the country’s finance minister.

Premier Bohuslav Sobotka said that he will meet President Milos Zeman this week to formally submit the government’s resignation.

Tuesday’s move reflects tensions in the ruling coalition about six months ahead of the parliamentary election.

Sobotka said there are suspicions that Babis, the country’s second richest businessman, avoided paying taxes in the past. Doubts have also surfaced about how he became wealthy.

Babis heads a centrist movement that is a favorite to win October’s ballot, paving the way for him to become prime minister. He previously denied any wrongdoing.

Sobotka’s Social Democrats are a distant second. The Christian Democrats are the third member of the coalition that was created in 2014. Their chairman Pavel Belobradek said he respected the premier’s decision.

Sobotka said it would be an option to fire Babis but that would mean his rival would be given extra time to campaign ahead of the vote.

“That’s the reason I’m opting for the only reasonable solution which is available, and that’s the government’s resignation,” Sobotka said during a hastily organized news conference.

“A trust of the public in politics is at stake,” Sobotka said.

The premier said the move will give the coalition a chance to form a government again, but without Babis. Another option is for Parliament to call early elections. It is not clear if that would be acceptable for the necessary three-fifths of deputies in Parliament, given the relatively short time until the vote scheduled for Oct 20-21.

Babis, the most popular government politician, called the move “incomprehensible.” He said the premier had damaged everything the government has done. “(Sobotka) destroys everything,” Babis told Czech public radio. The government was successful, we had results.”

“I reject his nonsense,” he said. Babis said hhi was doing business in line with law.

The presidential office didn’t immediately comment.

The president plays a key role in a crisis like this one because he has the right to select a new prime minister.

Zeman was scheduled to meet Babis, considered his ally, on Wednesday.

Analyst Tomas Lebeda said he considered that Sobotka had made a “huge political mistake” because he put Zeman, his rival, in full control.

Babis said it was nonsense for him to be named the prime minister and said he would prefer the government to complete its term despite the resignation.

“Let’s be reasonable,” he said.

Babis’ centrist movement came in a surprise second in the 2013 parliamentary elections with an anti-corruption message

Babis is sometimes dubbed the “Czech Berlusconi,” a comparison to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media tycoon who until recent years dominated his nation’s politics.

Babis has often quarreled with the leftist Social Democrats in the government.

Most notably, the Social Democrats pushed through legislation that limits the business activities of government ministers. The law bans ministers from owning media organizations, and bars companies in which ministers have more than a 25-percent stake from receiving state subsidies and participating in public tenders.

Babis, who owned two major newspapers and the Agrofert conglomerate of some 250 companies which receives state subsidies, fiercely opposed the law but has complied with it.

Despite the political bickering, the Czech economy has been doing well, with the country having the lowest unemployment in the European Union.