By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech lower house on Wednesday overturned the last obstacle to a law putting limits on ministers’ business activities, a rule that will force Finance Minister Andrej Babis to give up direct control of his chemicals and media conglomerate.
The lower house voted overwhelmingly 129-49 to overrule a veto by President Milos Zeman and the approved amendment to conflict of interest legislation will enter force within weeks.
Babis, billionaire owner of more than 250 companies, entered parliament and government with his ANO movement in 2013 and is the favorite to become prime minister after this October’s election, as many Czechs trust his business approach and pledges to weed out graft in the political establishment.
As number two on Forbes list of richest Czechs, worth $2.7 billion, Babis has been likened by media to incoming U.S. President Donald Trump or the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The new law will ban ownership of media for ministers, and also prevent firms in which ministers hold more then 25 percent from winning public contracts and discretionary subsidies.
Babis’s Agrofert group and other firms have received investment aid and have business interactions with the public sector.
Babis said he never gained any unfair advantage from his political engagement. He said ANO, as well as Zeman, was likely to file a complaint with the Constitutional Court but he said he would comply with the law, without giving any details how.
“I will fight for my rights. It is not normal that traditional parties, rotten with corruption, should close the door to people who have achieved something and want to help our country,” he told reporters after the vote.
“This law is meant to make me leave politics. I will not give the authors of this dirty trick the pleasure.”
The Slovak-born Babis’s firms are the country’s largest private employer with more than 30,000 workers in sectors ranging from farming to chemicals, forestry and healthcare.
He may transfer his assets, which include two daily newspapers and the most popular private radio station, to a trust fund to comply with the law, without selling the business.
This echoes Italy which, under prime minister and media owner Berlusconi, passed a law in 2004 that restricted politicians from taking an active role in running companies.
ANO leads most opinion polls with a double-digit margin over Prime Mister Bohuslav Sobotka’s Social Democrats.
As minister, Babis has introduced a measures to improve tax collection. He has spoken in favor of lower taxes, has been skeptical on adoption of the euro, and criticized Germany’s refugee policy, calling for tighter border control.
Babis’s biggest trouble in office came last year after revelations the European anti-fraud body OLAF as well as Czech police have been looking into the legality of about 2 million euro in 2008 subsidies for his hotel and conference center outside Prague. There has been no conclusion to the investigations.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)