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May 10, 2017

PRAGUE (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied on Wednesday in the Czech Republic’s capital and other major cities against President Milos Zeman and Finance Minister Andrej Babis. The protesters gathered at Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague demanded Babis’ firing and Zeman’s resignation in the latest development of the Czech political crisis.

The public demonstrations follow Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka asking the president last week to get rid of the finance minister over his unexplained business dealings, especially charges that he hadn’t properly explained suspicions that he avoided paying taxes.

Babis, one of the richest people in the country, has denied wrongdoing and refused to resign. He owned two major national newspapers, a radio and the Agrofert conglomerate of some 250 companies before he transferred them to a fund earlier this year after a new law limited the business activities of government ministers.

Zeman so far has refused to fire his ally, claiming the government’s three-party ruling coalition first would have to dissolve their coalition agreement. Sobotka’s left-wing Social Democrats are rivals of Babis’ ANO centrist movement in a parliamentary election scheduled for October. ANO is a favorite to win the most seats, paving the way for Babis to become the next prime minister.

Zeman invited the leaders of the coalition parties to discuss the political crisis late Wednesday. Meanwhile, the lower house of Parliament approved a resolution alleging that Babis had “repeatedly lied” to the public and “misused his media” empire to damage his opponents.

The vote on the resolution followed a long and heated debate over recordings recently posted on social media that appeared to capture Babis and a journalist from his newspaper planning a press campaign against his rivals, including the Social Democrats.

Babis said Wednesday he “made a huge mistake” by meeting with the man in the recordings, but claimed it was a provocation to discredit him. The journalist was fired. Babis is sometimes dubbed the “Czech Berlusconi,” a comparison to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics for many years.

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