Czech billionaire sets aside business for power politics

Czech Social Democrats Party (CSSD) leader Bohuslav Sobotka (centre), Christian Democrat party (KDU-CSL) chairman Pavel Belobradek (right) and Czech entrepreneur and leader of the ANO party Andrej Babis pose for the media after signing a coalition ag
Czech Social Democrats Party (CSSD) leader Bohuslav Sobotka (centre), Christian Democrat party (KDU-CSL) chairman Pavel Belobradek (right) and Czech entrepreneur and leader of the ANO party Andrej Babis pose for the media after signing a coalition agreement on Jan 6, 2014, at the Czech Parliament in Prague. Mr Babis, Czech Republic's second richest man whose fledgling party came in second in parliamentary elections, said on Jan 20 that he is setting aside his business portfolio to take up a political one, as finance minister. -- PHOTO: AFP 

PRAGUE (AFP) - The Czech Republic's second richest man whose fledgling party came in second in parliamentary elections, Mr Andrej Babis, said on Monday he is setting aside his business portfolio to take up a political one, as finance minister.

The founder of Agrofert, the country's largest trading conglomerate dealing in food, fertiliser and chemicals, said he has given up his responsibilities in the group to avoid any appearance of conflicting interests should he end up directing the nation's economy.

"Today, Monday, I signed my own letter of dismissal," said the 59-year-old - who has an estimated net worth of US$2 billion (S$2.55 billion) - on his Facebook page.

"I hope that no one will reproach me for a conflict of interest," he added.

His nomination to the new centre-left cabinet of Bohuslav Sobotka, appointed prime minister on Friday, is expected at the end of the month.

Mr Babis became a political powerbroker when his ANO party scored a surprise 18.6 per cent of the vote in October polls - just 1.8 percentage points behind the leading Social Democrats - and he is now part of a three-way coalition government.

He reworked United States President Barack Obama's "Yes we can" campaign slogan, promising austerity-weary Czechs "Yes, we'll be better-off" with a politician who knows how to make money.

He founded ANO in 2011, determined to lure voters with promises of clean politics in a country ranked more corrupt than Rwanda by Transparency International.

The one cloud over his political star turn is his past membership in the Communist Party before the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

"True, I don't have the best profile," Mr Babis has said while staunchly denying allegations that he was also a communist secret police agent.

Czech President Milos Zeman has said he could give Mr Babis the nod if lawmakers approve a bill overriding a ban on communist-era collaborators becoming ministers, which has already been introduced in parliament.