Bohuslav Sobotka begins government negotiations with party backing

Andrej Babiš, Lubomír Zaorálek, Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK

After facing down rivals within his own party, the Social Democratic chairman Bohuslav Sobotka has finally begun negotiations on the future government. This weekend, the central executive committee of the party confirmed him as the chairman and gave him the go-ahead to proceed with talks, with the two most likely coalition partners being Andrej Babiš’ ANO and the Christian Democrats. I spoke to analyst Jiří Pehe about Mr. Sobotka’s prospects of negotiating a new government.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
“I think the main sticking points will be corporate taxes and possible changes to the law on church property restitution. It seems to me that both Mr. Babis’s ANO and the Christian Democrats are against raising corporate taxes, whereas the Social Democrats would like to do so. Perhaps they will be able to find a compromise by agreeing on progressive taxation, while keeping corporate taxes where they are.

“And as far as the church restitution law goes, it will probably depend on how much the Social Democrats would like to tamper with it, whether they would like to deal only with the financial compensation, which is part of the law which says the state has to pay some 35 billion crowns to the churches in the next 30 years or whether they will do something more dignificant. But perhaps in the end, they will just acknowledge that this is one issue where they cannot find a compromise and they will just leave it.”

The Social Democrats have given Mr. Sobotka a strong vote of confidence this weekend, confirming him as the chairman of the party. But going into these talks how strong is his position in terms of negotiating with the other parties?

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
“I think that his position has paradoxically been strengthened by what has happened in the Social Democratic party. Now, after the vote of confidence in him from the central committee, I think he is in a very strong position and in fact he is surrounded by people who support him, and that makes him a very strong negotiator.

“And he also knows that to succeed within the party, to actually keep his position, he needs to negotiate a good deal, that he cannot make too many concessions. So, we’ll see how he is going to handle this, but I think that his position is quite strong.”

At the same time, if he fails to come to an acceptable deal with ANO and the Christian Democrats, his position as chairman will be again under threat. The other parties certainly must know this. Do you think this will influence how strongly they will be pushing for their agenda?

“I think that both the Christian Democrats and ANO realize that Mr. Sobotka could be compromised within his own party if they are not forthcoming. And I think that they are interested in making a deal with Sobotka rather than with [Michal] Hašek and his group. So, I think that both ANO and the Christian Democrats will be accommodating but they will of course have to defend their positions on some issues.

“I think the church restitution law is one issue where the Christian Democrats, for example, cannot make any compromises. But fortunately for Mr. Sobotka, this was not a key point in the Social Democratic election program. So I think they will go a long way to find a compromise with Mr. Sobotka, because it’s in their own interest.”

Christian Democrats' chairman Pavel Bělobrádek,  photo: CTK
Do you think the likelihood of Mr. Sobotka becoming the next Czech Prime Minister is pretty high?

“The likelihood of Mr. Sobotka becoming prime minister are higher than 50 percent, but we should not forget that there is still one major obstacle, which is President Milos Zeman, who certainly Mr. Sobotka to become prime minister. We will see what kind of game Mr. Zeman will play. But if in the end he does recognize that Mr. Sobotka has a very strong mandate from the Social Democratic party, then Mr. Sobotka will become the prime minister.”