Czech Committee Backs Stripping Babis's Immunity Before Election

  • Billionaire’s party leads opinion polls before Oct. 20-21 vote
  • Police seeking to investigate alleged misuse of EU funds

Czech lawmakers moved closer to allowing a criminal investigation into fraud allegations against billionaire Andrej Babis, the head of the country’s most popular party and the man most likely to become prime minister following October general elections.

The parliamentary immunity committee voted on Wednesday to recommend stripping Babis and one of his closest allies of protection against prosecution, head of the panel, Miroslava Nemcova, told reporters in Prague. The police are seeking to probe Babis, the second-richest man in the country of 10.6 million people, over the alleged misuse of European Union aid funds at a company belonging to his business empire. Babis says the allegations were fabricated by his rivals to thwart him from taking power. He called the accusations “absurd.”

The “affair has been contrived to diminish our appeal to voters,” he said on Wednesday after appearing at the parliamentary committee. “I categorically reject the accusations. The timing is clearly politically motivated.”

Babis and his euroskeptic ANO party are facing pressure from political opponents who are fighting to close the distance with his wide lead in opinion polls. Buoyed by a message that it’s an alternative to traditional political forces, ANO’s popularity has risen steadily since it joined the three-party ruling coalition four years ago. In response, Babis’s critics in the government and opposition have accused him of tax evasion and conflicts of interest linked to his chemical, food and media holdings.

Babis is sticking to pledges to cut state debt and continues to attack his rivals in the political establishment as corrupt, inept managers of public finances. While he’s now firmly embedded in the political mainstream, his rhetoric echoes the platforms of populist forces challenging the political landscape across Europe.

Read more about Babis’s finances and his political goals in QuickTake Q&A

Babis, whose fortune is estimated at $3.6 billion, has rejected all accusations of tax evasion and said he did nothing illegal in the case of a 50 million-koruna ($2.3 million) EU subsidy transferred to his Stork Nest recreation complex.

The center belonged to Babis’s business empire in the past, but he told a parliamentary hearing last year that it was owned by his children and his brother-in-law when the application for EU funds was filed. He transferred all his assets to a trust fund, supervised by his wife, this year after his coalition partners teamed up with opposition to tighten the conflict-of-interest law.

ANO’s support has ranged from 26 percent to 34 percent in opinion polls in the past two months, compared with 19 percent it received in the 2013 election and more than 10 percentage points above the nearest competitor.

Following the committee’s decision, the motion to allow an investigation into Babis and ANO deputy Chairman Jaroslav Faltynek, who also denies any wrongdoing, will have be approved by a vote in the full chamber. Nemcova said the assembly was scheduled to start the discussion on the police request Sept. 6.

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