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Babiš may bypass bothersome law by becoming Czech president

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Prague, Sept 20 (CTK) – Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a chemical, food and media tycoon, may bypass the expected new law, which is to restrict ministers’ business activities, by not seeking a post in the next cabinet but becoming president instead, Petr Honzejk writes in Hospodarske noviny (HN) on Tuesday.

The conflict of interest bill, which the Chamber of Deputies passed last week and which is expected to comfortably sail through the Senate, bans ministers from owning media and bans their companies from public procurement and state subsidies.

If passed, the law would apply to members of the next governments. Many believe the bill is aimed at Babis, head of the popular ANO movement and owner of the giant Agrofert Holding, whom it should make choose between business and politics after the next general election due in the autumn of 2017.

Honzejk writes an easy solution for Babis, 62, would be to seek the post of president, to which the conflict on interest law does not apply.

The constitution says the president is not politically accountable. Among others, this means that he can own any media, seek any business deals and draw subsidies without any limitations, Honzejk writes.

True, the authors of the constitutions did not expect anything like that, they even could not imagine it, but this definitely would not make Babis’s people feel embarrassed, Honzejk writes.

It would be an idyllic atmosphere, with Babis triumphantly entering Prague Castle, the presidential seat, high above the troubles of practical politics, Honzejk writes ironically.

Uniles, Babis’s forestry company, would start managing the Lany game park that belongs to the Presidential Office and which offers lots of trees for logging, Honzejk writes.

Agrofert Holding’s security department would take over the operation of the walk-through metal detectors in the Prague Castle complex and extend their number, he writes.

Babis’s food processing firms would start supplying catering for foreign visitors and his other firms would secure transport of the guests, using the fuel supplied by the Preol company, also owned by Babis, Honzejk writes with sarcasm.

At present, it is widely believed that Babis cannot become president. Why not, however? Honzejk asks.

The next general election will be held practically simultaneously with the direct presidential election due in early 2018. Babis’s ANO is the most popular political party. If he ran for president, it could easily happen that ANO would win the general election and Babis the presidential one, Honzejk writes.

It could happen that Babis, the newly inaugurated president, would appoint one of his closest aides, [current ANO deputies’ group head] Jaroslav Faltynek for example, as prime minister in March 2018, Honzejk says.

If so, further developments would be quite smooth. Babis would be the president, a man loyal to Babis would be the prime minister. The government would start drafting pro-Agrofert legislation. In case it is challenged by critics, president Babis would choose allied experts as candidates for Constitutional Court judges to deal with the cases, Honzejk writes.

At the same time, Babis would place his people on the central bank (CNB) board, which, too, may be advantageous for him. This would be a “complex business” on the part of Babis, Honzejk writes with irony.

Some object that Babis does not want to be president since he is a type of an “executive politician” and would find presidency boring, Honzejk continues.

However, the post of president is far from only ceremonial in the Czech Republic, though many assert the opposite. According to the constitution, the president is a part of the executive power, and all Czech presidents have exercised their power very eagerly so far, Honzejk writes.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy only to an extent the president allows it to be. What former president Vaclav Havel did not dare in this respect, his successor Vaclav Klaus dared, and the incumbent president, Milos Zeman, has even dared what his predecessor Klaus did not, Honzejk writes.

This erosion of parliamentarism need not end with Zeman’s departure, mainly if the next president enjoys a strong support from his own party, which Babis definitely would enjoy, Honzejk writes.

Under such circumstances, Babis as president could control completely everything. He could control his own party, ANO, remaining its chairman and keeping absolute power in it. He could control the government and visit its meetings regularly. He could control his [Agrofert] company whose ownership could not be forbidden to him, as well as his media, which he could run in accordance with law, Honzejk writes.

All this is true on condition that Zeman does not seek re-election for the second five-year term. This is not as improbable as many may believe. Zeman, who will turn 72 next week, is not fit. It is hard to say whether he will be able to conduct an election campaign. If not, the path to presidency will be free for Babis, Honzejk writes.

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