Czech MPs back conflict of interest law in vote aimed at billionaire Babis

The Czech lower house approved a law on Wednesday aimed at limiting politicians’ business interests, moving closer to clipping the wings of the country’s popular finance minister, Andrej Babis.

The conflict of interest law, backed by all parties except Babis’s ANO movement, would ban all members of future cabinets from owning media outlets, and any companies in which they own large stakes would be barred from public contracts and non-automatic subsidies.

Babis, potentially a leading candidate to become prime minister after next year’s parliamentary election, is also the largest private employer in the country, with interests from farming and chemicals to newspapers and fertility clinics.

“Oligarchs must make a choice between being in the cabinet and subsidies, public contracts and owning media,” Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, whose Social Democrats are in government with Babis’s ANO, said on Twitter.

Some commentators argued that Babis could by-pass the new law by transferring ownership of media or firms to a partner or family member, but the vote was nonetheless hailed as a step in improving the country’s political culture.

Babis, likened to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in the way he has mixed commerce and politics, has protested against the law, which was passed by 135 votes in the 200-seat chamber.

“They are losers who do not know how the world works,” news website — one of the outlets Babis owns – quoted him as saying while watching the vote in parliament’s lobby.

The law still needs backing in the upper house, but Wednesday’s vote pointed to broad support and the ability of the lower house to overturn any potential veto from the second chamber.

One clause, introducing an outright ban on ministers owning stakes of over 40 percent in companies, was not endorsed by the center-right opposition Civic Democrats.

But a ban on public contracts or subsidies would still be significant for Babis’s Agrofert, a conglomerate of over 250 companies that does business with the state, such as the supply and storage of commodity reserves, and has received subsidies for various environmental upgrades.

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; editing by John Stonestreet)

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