25 January 2007

Czechia: no longer "the biggest non-governmental organisation in Europe"

The June general election landed my homeland in the worst political deadlock imaginable. The lower chamber was divided into two blocs of equal size; the winning Civic Democrats (ODS), Christian Democrats (KDU - ČSL) and the Greens stood against the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the Communists (KSČM). As the prospects of reaching any settlement were rapidly fading, Oldřich Průša aptly dubbed Czechia "the biggest non-governmental organisation in Europe".

Seven and a half months on, we finally got a government. The prime minister Mirek Topolánek is heading a cabinet consisting of his Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens. Topolánek only survived the parliamentary vote of confidence because two Social Democrats, Vít Pohanka and Miloš Melčák, voted with the coalition deputies.

Václav Klaus, the president, has been criticised for overt intervention in the coalition negotiations. Klaus, who still wields a considerable leverage in the ODS which he founded, was pressing hard for the grand coalition between the Civic and Social Democrats. Yet there was a very little convergence in parties' manifestos: the ODS advocated the flat tax, the Social Democrats were promising more social benefits. The very heated campaign had created unbridgeable personal animosities.

Despite all that, Klaus, with his eye set upon re-election (the president is chosen by a common vote of lower chamber deputies and senators), concentrated on undermining Topolánek, who refused to ally himself with the ideological opponents. Klaus wanted Pavel Bém, the popular mayor of Prague, to overthrow Topolánek and create a "grand coalition", which would guarantee that Klaus regains his post in the presidential election. Yet Topolánek outmanoeuvred Klaus eventually, securing conditional support from the two Social Democrats.

The new government will not have an easy ride. It will have to rely on the support of two deputies who are still technically members of the ČSSD. Moreover, right from the start, scandals are emerging. The failure of Topolánek's marriage has long been filling the pages of tabloids. Jiří Čunek, the Christian Democrat leader, stands accused of political corruption and sexual harrassment. The culture minister Helena Třeštíková resigned before spending a single week in the function.

From the beginning, it was clear that the best solution would be a snap election. However, the Social Democrats, likely to lose out, always blocked this option. Now with the government confirmed in function, the constitutional path to a new election is even more complicated. The weak government will probably have to muddle along all the way.


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