Czech PM takes on finance minister as election battle heats up

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka on Thursday demanded that his billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a leading candidate in October elections, explain past business activities amid media speculation he could be axed.

"I'm worried by the way the finance minister has reacted to doubts raised in connection with his business dealings," Social Democrats (CSSD) leader Sobotka told reporters in Prague.

"I'm waiting for his explanation by the end of April, then I'll take my decision," Sobotka said.

Ranked by Forbes as the Czech Republic's second most wealthy citizen, Babis ran the sprawling Agrofert conglomerate before putting his assets into a trust earlier this year to ward off conflict of interest allegations.

Sobotka said Thursday he asked Babis, who also runs the centrist ANO political party, to clarify his past use of tax-free bonds in connection with Agrofert operations.

Babis who has flatly denied any wrong-doing is riding high in opinion polls, with ANO scoring 33.5 percent support compared to just 16 percent for Sobotka's CSSD in a survey conducted by the CVVM polsters this month.

Babis insisted that Sobotka's move was part of the "political battle" ahead of the October 20-21 general election and dismissed any allegations against him as "lies or half-truths".

According to Prague-based political analyst Jiri Pehe, while Sobotka's request is in part an early campaign move, "there are many activities that have gone unexplained concerning Andrej Babis".

Having taken office in 2014, Sobotka's leftist CSSD has shared power in a three member coalition government with Babis's centrist ANO and the smaller centre-right KDU-CSL Christian Democratic parties.

The fresh conflict could trigger its collapse, but Pehe said that an early election was unlikely to be called during the summer, pointing instead to the possibility of a minority caretaker government until the October ballot.

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