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Czech president backs new culture minister nominee, defusing government crisis

Czech president backs new culture minister nominee, defusing government crisis
FILE PHOTO: Czech President Milos Zeman gestures in Vienna, Austria April 3, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo -
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Leonhard Foeger(Reuters)
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PRAGUE (Reuters) – Czech President Milos Zeman on Wednesday backed the new nominee for culture minister from the junior party in the ruling coalition, defusing a political crisis that had threatened to topple the government.

The Social Democrats earlier nominated Lubomir Zaoralek, a former foreign minister and lower house of parliament speaker, to head the Culture Ministry, after Zeman last week rejected their previous nominee for the post.

In rejecting the party’s nominee, Zeman broke with the constitutional custom whereby a president does not veto a ministerial candidate presented by the prime minister.

The Social Democrats threatened to quit the ruling coalition with Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s ANO party if it could not pick the culture minister. But then the rejected nominee, Michal Smarda, stepped aside, opening the way for a compromise.

“Lubomir Zaoralek was a successful speaker of the lower house, he was a successful foreign minister, when he was in charge of much bigger ministry and he also worked in culture,” the party’s leader, Jan Hamacek, told a news conference.

Zeman’s spokesman said on Twitter that the president agreed with the choice and would meet with Zaoralek before setting a date for his official appointment.

Zeman had argued that Smarda lacked qualifications in the cultural sphere.

Babis, a billionaire businessman, founded the ANO party and has fought conflict of interest allegations since entering politics. He faces criminal charges for alleged subsidy fraud but denies any wrongdoing.

Zeman has backed Babis, who needs the votes of pro-Zeman factions in parliament to command a majority.

In turn, Babis refused to get into a fight with the president over his coalition partner’s ministerial nomination.

The Social Democrats and Babis’s ANO party still face tough negotiations to finalise a 2020 budget draft before the end of September.

The next Czech parliamentary election is due in the autumn of 2021.

(Reporting by Jason Hovet and Robert Muller; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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