Comments by PM's aide complicate negotiations

Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

After what initially appeared to be a breakthrough in government negotiations last week, politicians in the Czech Republic are back at square one. On Sunday the Social Democrats led by Jiri Paroubek rejected a proposal by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek to join a four-party coalition that would have run the country until 2008. The party rejected the deal on the grounds that a year-an-a-half or so in office was simply too short. Trust, or lack of it, may also have played a part, after it came to light that a close aide to the prime minister had made disparaging comments about the Social Democrats and their chances in being in the next government.

Marek Dalik, photo: CTK
The weekend saw new developments in political dealings in the Czech Republic, but not necessarily for the better. Comments by Marek Dalik - one of the prime minister's closest aides - have aggravated already difficult negotiations. Although he categorically denied making disparaging comments about the Social Democrats at first, the newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes revealed the conversation had secretly been taped and that has caused something of a stir. Civic Democrat MP Miroslava Nemcova said on Czech TV's debate programme on Sunday that while she didn't think the prime minister himself should have to apologise for his aide's words, the case should see some kind of resolution.

"I'm not in the position of the prime minister but I do think that [Mr Dalik's actions] crossed the line in terms of prudent cooperation between the aide and the prime minister. [In his place] I would have to draw some conclusions. "

So, what exactly did Mr Dalik say? According to Mlada Fronta Dnes, he boasted about how the Civic Democrats would essentially play the Social Democrats for fools, eventually dropping them from negotiations. He also claimed that he had won over a number of their deputies to back a centre-right government made up only of the Civic Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Greens. This despite the fact that in the past Prime Minister Topolanek has said he rejected the idea of any government leaning on support from rogue MPs.

Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK
Even so, the revelation has had an impact: on Saturday Jiri Paroubek demanded Mr Topolanek apologise for his aide and on Sunday he added that until he received an explanation he would likely put further talks between his party and the centre-right Civic Democrats on hold. Sunday evening the Social Democrats then announced that after further consultations they had decided to reject the Civic Democrats' four-party proposal on the grounds that early elections in 2008 were simply too soon. Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek:

"We discussed it within the negotiation team and came to the conclusion that we couldn't back a government that would have a mandate only lasting until the spring of 2008."

Negotiations are back at square one and the four-party deal appears dead in the water. Try as they might, politicians on the Czech scene have now been unable to break the political deadlock for the better part of six months. In the end, it was not the prime minister but the Social Democrats on Sunday who came forward with the latest initiative. Titled "Agenda 2010", their plan envisages a three-party coalition: the Social, the Civic and the Christian Democrats in one cabinet for the next four years. Given the parties' inability to reach consensus so far, many observers remain sceptical that even now party negotiators will be able to agree on a deal any time soon.