Czech Billionaire Premier Survives Ouster Bid Over Fraud Probe

(Bloomberg) -- The Czech Republic’s billionaire prime minister survived a non-confidence vote and defeated a challenge sparked by fraud allegations.

Andrej Babis, who rose to power by attacking the political establishment and campaigning against Muslim refugees, has been facing a crescendo of calls for his ouster over investigations into his conduct as a businessman. The pressure escalated this month after his son claimed that he had been abducted to Crimea as his father tried to hide him from the probes. Babis Sr. rejects the allegations and said his son, who’s been also accused in the fraud case, is mentally ill.

The case of alleged misuse of a European Union grant at a company that once belonged to Babis’s chemical, agriculture and media empire has strained relations between members of the ruling coalition, which is governing without a parliamentary majority.

While the Social Democrats, the junior partner, urged the the tycoon’s ANO party to pick another premier, it declined to join the opposition’s ouster motion. The Communists, who aren’t part of the government but back it in key votes, also supported Babis in the no-confidence motion on Friday.

“Andrej Babis’s position is exceptionally strong on every front,” said Tomas Lebeda, a political scientist at Palacky University in Olomouc, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) east of Prague. “This case hasn’t changed anything despite triggering quite strong emotions on all sides.”

The crisis has cemented the premier’s alliance with President Milos Zeman, a veteran pro-Russian politician who shares Babis’s anti-immigrant views and opposition to joining the euro area. Even before the premier’s partners pledged their backing, Zeman said he’d pick the billionaire to lead the government again if his current cabinet was ousted. In the end, the opposition failed to muster the 101-vote majority needed to bring down the government.

While most mainstream parties refuse to cooperate with Babis because of the investigation that began three years ago, his popularity has been largely unaffected. In a flash survey by the polling company Median, half of the electorate thought the latest twist in the case should have some implications for the government and about a third wanted the cabinet to continue without any changes.

But Babis’s ANO party has kept a wide lead in popularity. On Friday, the pollster CVVM published a survey showing that ANO would win elections now with about 30 percent. It was mostly conducted before the current crisis and didn’t reflect its potential impact on political parties, CVVM said.

The government is increasing spending on pensions, public wages, and large investment projects, which is resonating with Babis’s voters. While ANO lost control of the Prague city council in a recent municipal ballot, it continued dominate the rest of the country.

Still, several thousand people took to the streets in the capital last Saturday to demand Babis’s resignation. The premier calls the fraud probe a fabrication by his rivals and said the video of his son’s abduction claim was media manipulation and part of a campaign to drive him out of politics.

“I don’t have a reason to resign,” Babis told lawmakers before the vote. “You will either have to dismiss me or try to defeat me in free, democratic elections. You can’t get rid of me in any other way than the one based on the will of the citizens.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.