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Czech lawmakers pass divisive conflict of interest amendment

Associated Press Associated Press 14/09/2016 By KAREL JANICEK, Associated Press
FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2016 file image, Czech Republic's Finance Minister Andrej Babis gestures prior an extraordinary session of Parliament's lower house in Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech Parliament's lower chamber has approved legislation Wednesday Sept 2016, that limits the business activities of future government ministers. In a 135-39 vote on Wednesday, coalition and opposition lawmakers agreed to ban ministers from owning media.(AP Photo/Petr David Josek file) © The Associated Press FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2016 file image, Czech Republic's Finance Minister Andrej Babis gestures prior an extraordinary session of Parliament's lower house in Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech Parliament's lower chamber has approved legislation Wednesday Sept 2016, that limits the business activities of future government ministers. In a 135-39 vote on Wednesday, coalition and opposition lawmakers agreed to ban ministers from owning media.(AP Photo/Petr David Josek file)

PRAGUE — Czech lawmakers approved legislation Wednesday that limits the business activities of future government ministers, angering a governing coalition party which says the law is targeting its leader — the country's finance minister and a favorite to become the next premier.

In a 135-39 vote in Parliament's lower chamber, coalition and opposition lawmakers agreed to ban ministers from owning media. The law also would bar companies where ministers have more than a 25-percent stake from receiving state subsidies, taking part in public tenders and accessing investment aid.

The legislation was an amendment to the country's conflict of interest law and was approved despite fierce resistance from the ANO (YES) movement led by Finance Minister Andrej Babis which voted against the law.

ANO accused its government coalition partners, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, of directly attacking Babis, whose media empire includes two major newspapers and a popular radio station, and whose agriculture and chemical conglomerate Agrofert receives state and EU subsidies.

Babis' centrist movement came in a surprise second in the 2013 parliamentary elections with an-anti corruption message and is currently a favorite to win the ballot in 2017, paving the way for Babis, the country's most popular politician, to become the next prime minister.

Agrofert includes about 250 companies and employs almost 34,000 people.

"It is against the principles of rule of law to adopt laws which regulate activities of one single person," ANO lawmaker Jaroslav Faltynek said during a debate before the vote.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka welcomed the lower chamber's endorsement of the legislation, which still needs Senate and presidential approval.

"The oligarchs will have to make a choice: to be in the government or get subsidies, public contracts and media ownership," Sobotka tweeted.

ANO is considering whether to take legal action, but isn't planning to leave the government.

"It's a law that prevents businessmen from participating in politics," said Babis, a billionaire sometimes dubbed the "Czech Berlusconi," a comparison to Silvio Berlusconi — the Italian media tycoon who until recent years dominated his nation's politics. "It's an absurd theater."

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