Czech mogul faces tough sell on minority government


Prague (AFP)

The Czech president on Wednesday named a minority government led by Andrej Babis, a billionaire populist facing fraud charges who is struggling to win a confidence vote in parliament next month.

Campaigning on an anti-corruption, anti-euro and anti-migrant ticket, Babis' ANO movement won 78 of 200 seats in parliament in October's general election, far outstripping eight other elected parties.

Potential coalition partners have snubbed the Slovak-born chemicals, food and media tycoon, suspicious of his communist past and recent police charges over alleged fraud, something Babis flatly denies.

Babis now has 30 days to clinch the support of a majority of all MPs present in parliament.

"This cabinet will... fight for an efficient and cost-effective state, against corruption, and it will do its best to win confidence or tolerance in parliament on January 10," Babis told reporters echoing campaign promises to "manage the state like a family business".

President Milos Zeman vowed Wednesday to give political ally Babis a second chance if his cabinet fails to win a first-round confidence vote.

"I'll give him far more time to negotiate backing for his minority or coalition cabinet," Zeman said.

Under the constitution, the president has two attempts to decide who will form the government, leaving the third and final try to the speaker of parliament who is a Babis ally.

The 73-year-old Zeman, an ex-communist who makes no secret of his pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and anti-Muslim stance, is targeting a second term in a two-round election held January 12-13 and 26-27.

- Fraud charges -

Babis is due to meet Hungarian and Polish leaders at an EU summit in Brussels on Friday to hammer out a joint position to fight a lawsuit launched by the bloc over the refusal of the three key eastern states to accept quotas for asylum seekers.

Babis is facing fraud charges for allegedly breaking rules back in 2007 to obtain EU subsidies granted to small companies.

Police have asked parliament to strip Babis of immunity as a lawmaker for a second time -- the previous parliament did so in September but Babis regained his immunity when re-elected in the October vote.

Babis's minority government includes six ministers who were in the previous centre-left coalition government of the leftwing Social Democrats, ANO and the centrist Christian Democrats.

Former defence minister Martin Stropnicky will be in charge of foreign affairs, while former regional development minister Karla Slechtova will take over defence.

Slechtova is one of four women in the 15-member cabinet led by the 63-year-old Babis, which makes him the oldest incoming prime minister in Czech history.