Tycoon Minister Faces Czech Media-Ownership Ban With New Law

  • Bill bans state subsidies for companies owned by ministers
  • Finance Minister Babis says legislation violates his rights

The Czech parliament approved a bill banning future government members from owning media, a move that will force billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis to surrender control of his influential newspapers if he wants a cabinet post after 2017 elections.

The legislation tightening conflict-of-interest rules, dubbed Lex-Babis by Czech media, also bars companies owned by ministers from tapping state funds. The bill was pushed through parliament in rare cooperation between Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrats and conservative opposition parties. They all trail Babis’s five-year-old ANO, which has eclipsed traditional parties by capturing the protest vote, in opinion polls.

“Oligarchs will have to choose: government membership or subsidies, public contracts and media ownership,” Sobotka said on his Twitter account after the vote on Wednesday.

The motion deepens tensions between Sobotka and Babis, whose ruling coalition has been rocked by fighting over welfare spending, taxes, leadership of the organized-crime police unit and anti-smoking laws. Despite the bickering, the two leaders agreed to reverse the austerity drive imposed by the previous administration, fueling recovery from a recession and fostering a record budget surplus this year.

For the story on turbulent coalition relations, click here.

While ANO’s caucus chief, Jaroslav Faltynek, welcomed lawmakers’ decision to reject an amendment that would ban ministers from owning companies, the party voted against the conflict-of-interest law as such. The bill now goes to the upper house and will also need to be signed by President Milos Zeman. Vetoes by either can be overridden by a new vote in the lower house.

Babis said he’ll wait for the new law to become effective before consulting lawyers on his options. He decried the bill as an attack by traditional parties, saying they were “desperate and always trying to come up with something” against him.

“It’s unacceptable for me that my basic right to choose what I want to own, or whether I want to go into politics, is decided by someone else,” Babis said.

While coalition partners, Babis and Sobotka are also political rivals and openly disagree over the state’s role in the economy. ANO is leading in opinion polls with just over a year to go before general elections, and Babis is the most popular party leader. The second-richest Czech, he owns assets in chemical and food industries as well as the largest mainstream newspaper.

Babis, a former Communist-era trade official with a fortune of at least $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has fought off conflict-of-interest allegations since joining politics. He says he isn’t running his empire, which includes 250 companies and employs 34,000 people in 18 countries.

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