Coalition parties shelve their differences to avert threat of early elections

Photo: CTK

Leaders of the ruling centre-right coalition stepped away from the brink on Monday night, reaching agreement on a cabinet re-shuffle that would allow the pro-reform government to remain in office. The agreement comes in the wake of a crippling corruption scandal that led to numerous rifts within the governing coalition and resulted in a dramatic slump in public support.

Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg,  Petr Nečas,  Radek John,  photo: CTK
It was an hour past midnight when Prime Minister Petr Nečas was able to tell the media that the drawn-out government crisis was finally over and the parties of the governing coalition had agreed on the terms under which they would continue to work together. In a move aimed at restoring public trust, the junior coalition party Public Affairs which media reports have linked to the security firm ABL, was forced to give up the Interior Ministry in favour of a widely-acceptable, non-partisan candidate.

The other changes in cabinet were surprisingly tame in view of the far-reaching demands that preceded the agreement. Transport Minister Vít Bárta, the man at the centre of the scandal who resigned after being accused of corruption and setting up Public Affairs in order to further his own business interests, is to be temporarily replaced by one of his non-partisan deputies on the promise that he can return to the post if he is able to clear his name. Education Minister Josef Dobeš, whom the prime minister wanted to dismiss as a figure who had close ties with the ABL security firm for which he’d previously worked, will not, after all, have to give up his post. And Public Affairs leader Radek John, who has been forced to give up the Interior Ministry, is to handle a new anti-corruption portfolio as deputy premier.

Vít Bárta,  photo: CTK
Announcing the details of the cabinet re-shuffle, the prime minister stressed that more changes would follow in the spring and that his government would seek a vote of confidence in Parliament by the end of June, linked to a vote on the government’s key reform bills.

The promise of more personnel changes in the coming weeks and months reveals that the rifts in the cabinet have been far from mended and that the prime minister is far from satisfied with the present government line-up. TOP 09 and Public Affairs are still pushing for the dismissal of Civic Democrat Defense Minister Alexander Vondra and Public Affairs has filed a criminal complaint against Agriculture Minister Ivan Fuksa over the financial handling of the state forestry company České Lesy.

Josef Dobeš,  photo: CTK
Commentators note that the animosities in cabinet have been shelved rather than forgotten, not least in view of the outcome of a poll indicating that if elections were held today the opposition Social Democrats and the Communist Party would win a constitutional majority of seats in the lower house. However the agreement which will allow the present coalition government to continue to rule the country is clearly fragile and, sensing blood the opposition is out for the kill. The Social Democrats are preparing to table a no-confidence motion in the centre-right government and although it now looks doomed to failure, the leading opposition party says it will persist in testing the unity of the governing coalition at every opportunity that presents itself.