It has taken eight months, and a couple of false starts — but billionaire tycoon Andrej Babis is finally close to forming a government in the Czech Republic, despite police charges hanging over him.
Mr Babis’s Ano party has struck a provisional coalition deal with the Social Democratic party, whose members have been voting on whether to accept it. Results are due this week. Jan Hamacek, a centrist who took over as Social Democrat leader this year, told the Financial Times that he was confident his party would join the government. “I think it’s going to be around 60 to 40 [in favour],” he said.
The Czech Republic has been an EU economic success story of late, with booming factories that are even experiencing labour shortages. But given that Mr Babis comfortably won October’s parliamentary elections on a strongly anti-establishment platform, there have been fears he might steer the country in a direction that would be politically difficult for the EU — emulating the confrontational stance towards Brussels adopted by Hungary and Poland.
Other parties have also been reluctant to join a government headed by Mr Babis, who has been charged by police in connection with a probe into an EU project subsidy. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and argued that the allegations were a ploy by his opponents.
Mr Hamacek said the coalition deal included a provision that Mr Babis would resign if convicted by a court of any wrongdoing.
Mr Babis’s first attempt at forming a government failed in January. But after Ano and the Social Democrats struck their provisional coalition deal in May, Czech president Milos Zeman last week officially appointed Mr Babis as prime minister for the second time.
Since the election Mr Babis’s tone towards Brussels has been more emollient and Mr Hamacek said a coalition would seek to be “constructive members of the EU”, without dramatic policy changes. But he acknowledged that Prague would remain opposed to refugee quotas — an issue splitting the EU in the run-up to a leaders’ summit this month.
“We have a clear stand on the proposed quota system, which we don’t agree with. But that is the only major issue where we might have a disagreement with our friends from the west. On the rest we are fine,” Mr Hamacek said.
Mr Hamacek said an Ano-Social Democrat government would also be cautious about joining the eurozone. “In general we accept that we will accept the euro eventually — but at the stage when it is socially and economically acceptable for the country. And currently, for my take … the [Czech] crown is too weak,” he said.
Even if the Social Democrats vote in favour of joining a coalition this week, the new government would still have to win a parliamentary vote of confidence to take office — a difficult hurdle since the two parties together control just 93 of the 200 seats in the Czech lower house.
The two parties want the far-left Communist party to support them during the confidence vote, likely to take place in July.
Although the Communists would not join the government, such an alliance would bring them the closest they have been to power since they were ousted during the 1989 Velvet Revolution — a prospect that appals many Czechs. Last week, protests against the proposed coalition took place in several cities including Prague.
The Communists oppose membership of Nato, and are pushing for a bill to allow referendums in the Czech Republic. Mr Hamacek said a bill would not allow plebiscites on Nato or EU membership, and insisted there was no risk of a fundamental change in Prague’s geopolitical stance.
“We have agreed several deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, but also the Baltics … We are fully fulfilling everything that we have promised within the [Nato] alliance, except defence spending, but we are working on that,” he said.
Diplomats agree, saying Mr Babis has taken steps in recent months to underscore the Czech Republic’s pro-western orientation, even though it means clashing with both Moscow, and the pro-Russian Mr Zeman.
In March, Mr Babis agreed to extradite an alleged Russian hacker to the US, and expelled three Russian diplomats in response to the attack on a former Russian double agent in Britain. In April, he backed western air strikes on Syria.
One diplomat said: “He’s sceptical about the EU, but not Eurosceptic; he’s sceptical about the commission, but not Eurosceptic. But a lot of people think that way. There is no sign of him turning east.”
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