PRAGUE All three parties in the Czech ruling coalition want to keep the cabinet afloat until an October election, party officials said on Wednesday, despite a row over the fate of Finance Minister Andrej Babis that has rocked the government.
The coalition has been in crisis since Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's attempt last week to oust Babis, a billionaire businessman and founder of the anti-establishment ANO party, due to questions over his past tax arrangements.
Babis has refused to resign and denies any wrongdoing.
"The important thing is that all three parties agreed they want to complete the term. They do not prefer an early election and are looking for a way to finish the mandate together," ANO deputy chairman Jaroslav Faltynek told Czech Television.
ANO, which wants to dislodge the parties that have dominated Czech politics since the fall of Communism, has a more than 10 point opinion poll lead over Sobotka's centre-left Social Democrats, meaning Babis could become the next prime minister.
Thousands protested in Prague on Wednesday evening against Babis and President Milos Zeman, who has taken Babis' side in the dispute and has been delaying acting on the prime minister's demand for his dismissal.
In Prague's Wenceslas Square, the site of the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" protests, people carried signs with slogans including "Babis is a liar" and Czech and European Union flags.
Estimates in Czech media put the crowd at 10,000-30,000, although police made no official estimate. Thousands more joined protests in a handful of other cities.
The lower house of parliament held an extraordinary session to discuss Babis. Under heavy criticism from most other government and opposition parties, he said he would not end his fight against what he sees as corruption in traditional parties.
"You can kill me but I will not resign and I will not quit politics," Babis told parliament. He says the scandal is politically motivated.
Sobotka has said he would keep the finance minister's job for ANO but that its holder should have no links to Babis' chemicals, food and media conglomerate Agrofert to allow for an impartial investigation of accusations that Babis dodged taxes by buying tax-free bonds from the company.
Several of Babis' party colleagues were managers at Agrofert before joining politics.
Babis transferred ownership of Agrofert to a trust fund this year to meet new conflict-of-interest legislation.
The EU's fraud office and Czech police have also been investigating whether Babis manipulated ownership of a conference centre to unfairly qualify for EU subsidies meant for small businesses.
The pressure on Babis grew after recordings anonymously published last week appeared to show him discussing last year the coverage of political opponents with a reporter at a newspaper that is part of Agrofert group.
Babis has rejected allegations he influenced content and said although he had met the reporter, the tapes were manipulated. The reporter has been fired.
Zeman has refused Sobotka's request to dismiss Babis unless the prime minister tears up a coalition agreement underpinning the government. Lawyers say the constitution does not allow the president to set such conditions.
Zeman met leaders from all the three government parties on Wednesday evening, before leaving for a week-long trip to China on Thursday, but the meeting brought no breakthrough.
(Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alison Williams)