Czech lawmakers approve law to curb politicians' business interests

The Czech lower house on Tuesday approved amendments to a draft bill designed to limit politicians’ business interests, moving closer to clipping the wings of the country’s billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis.

The ‘conflict of interest’ law will prevent politicians accumulating media, business and political power. It will prohibit cabinet ministers from owning media firms and disallow companies in which ministers own more than 25 percent from accessing public contracts, non-automatic subsidies and investment aid.

Only Babis’s ANO movement and several independents opposed the bill, which was originally approved in September but was returned by the upper house with several minor modifications. These were accepted by 125 votes in favor to 42 against.

To take effect, the law still needs the signature of President Milos Zeman, who has indicated he would not oppose it.

ANO said that it would challenge the law at the Constitutional Court.

Babis is the second richest Czech and the country’s largest private employer. His Agrofert group and other assets include over 250 companies from chemicals and food producers to media, forestry firms and fertility clinics, with over 30,000 workers.

His ANO movement, built as a protest party with a pro business agenda but no deep ideological background, is the front-runner in next October’s general election.

Babis will be able to adhere to the law by transferring his media outlets – daily newspapers Mlada fronta Dnes and Lidove Noviny, and the country’s largest private radio, Frekvence 1 – and Agrofert to a relative or a trust fund.

Some have compared Babis with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who combined media and business with political power. There are parallels too with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, whose vast business interests could create unprecedented conflicts of interest, ethic experts say.

Many of Babis’s firms interact with the state. The Finance Ministry also runs the tax administration, which collects data on all businesses.

Babis has repeatedly said he never abused his position.

Although Agrofert generated most of its revenue last year – 167.1 billion crowns ($6.56 billion) – through private transactions, a ban on public contracts and subsidies would still be significant for the conglomerate.

($1 = 25.4800 Czech crowns)

(Reporting by Robert Muller; editing by Richard Lough)

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