Caretaker cabinet talks hit snag as small parties dither

Martin Bursík, Jiří Čunek, Mirek Topolánek, David Vodrážka, Roman Línek (left to right), photo: CTK

It was all looking so hopeful on Monday – a caretaker government approved by four parties to take the country until early elections. A week is a long time in politics, but in this country a lot can happen even in 24 hours, because one of those four parties has backed out of the deal and another is wavering. So what does this mean, not just for this country but beyond?

Jiří Čunek,  photo: CTK
On Monday Radio Prague was reporting that four parties – the Civic Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens - had agreed on a deal to create a caretaker government headed by Jan Fischer, who is currently head of the Czech Statistics Office.

Shortly afterwards, however, the Christian Democrats started wobbling, and now their MPs have voted not to nominate their ministers to such a government, following what was rumoured to be a big shouting match inside their parliamentary office. The Greens, meanwhile, want to start four-party talks all over again.

As one commentator pointed out in the papers, a caretaker government really doesn’t suit the smaller parties, who would lose the little power and influence they currently have.

The Civic Democrats and Social Democrats between them have the 120 votes needed to shorten the electoral term and call early elections, which begs the question – why do they need the Christian Democrats or the Greens on board at all?

The answer to that one is complicated. If the two small parties can successfully spin it as the two big parties, the Civic Democrats and Social Democrats, forming what is essentially a grand coalition – albeit one that produces a non-partisan caretaker cabinet - then that increases their appeal with the voters when early elections come round in October. And they need that appeal – a poll released on Tuesday showed the Greens would fail to enter parliament if an election were held tomorrow.

Martin Bursík,  Jiří Čunek,  Mirek Topolánek,  David Vodrážka,  Roman Línek  (left to right),  photo: CTK
As for the Czech EU presidency, despite the protestations from some Czech leaders that it’s business as usual, and the reassurances from Brussels that the presidency is still working fine, it’s patently been paralysed by the fall of the government.

Deputy prime minister Alexandr Vondra was quoted in the weekly Respekt as saying that Czech officials were working hard just to make sure the Czech presidency doesn’t end up as a total fiasco. As one commentator for Lidové Noviny newspaper put it – with all due respect, the head of the Czech Statistics Office simply can’t negotiate from the same position of authority as Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel.

If anyone profits from this situation, then analysts agree it’s President Václav Klaus. A weak or non-existent government means a strong president. Klaus has told European Commission Barroso he is willing to intervene personally to finish the presidency.

That would mean presiding over a fairly crucial summit in June, at which the EU wants to discuss how to complete ratification of the Lisbon treaty - which of course the Czechs haven’t ratified and the eurosceptic Klaus opposes. It’s the kind of offer that likely sends shivers down the spine of eurocrats in Brussels, and there are even rumours of downgrading the June summit and leaving it to the more euro-friendly Swedes - who take over on July 1st - to hold a "real" summit on Lisbon after that.