Czech coalition government breakthrough awaited in final talks

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK

A short but critical working week is starting on the Czech political scene with the ANO party of caretaker prime minister Andrej Babiš and the Social Democrats needing to seal a deal. The clock is ticking with the new Social Democratic leadership needing to put the outcome of negotiations to party members at a special congress on Saturday.

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK
New Social Democrat leader Jan Hamáček last week underlined the party’s demands for at least five seats in a new government. And that as well as details about which ministries the party wants has proved one of the main sticking points so far in the talks aimed at creating a minority ANO-Social Democrat government which would also rely on the support of the communist party to push through legislation through parliament.

Although the Social Democrats have pushed for Andrej Babiš not to be in the government because he is still facing charges of possible misuse of EU funds – even offering for their leader Hamáček also not to feature in the Cabinet – ANO has not given way.

So the Social Democrats have instead demanded that they are either given the Ministry of Finance or Ministry of Interior, arguing that this would diminish the chances of conflicts of interest involving Andrej Babiš’ multiple business interests or increase the likelihood of them being pursued by the police.

ANO certainly doesn’t want to give up the finance ministry and is reluctant to let go of interior, especially if that might mean a return of its former occupant, Milan Chovanec. And that was how ANO left it when its negotiators decided to take a week’s time out to consider their options last Thursday. Hamáček said it was for ANO to make concessions.

But with talks only re-starting on Thursday there is not much time for a breakthrough to be made before Saturday’s Social Democrat congress. Party leaders, Hamáček and Jiří Zimola clearly have to present some convincing arguments why the rank and file should back going into government with Babiš, a man many clearly distrust and who many argue should be shunned no matter what concessions are wrung from the final talks.

Jan Hamáček, Jiří Zimola, photo: CTK
And there’s other pressure as well. It’s now more than five months since parliamentary elections gave ANO a clear victory but left them well short of an overall majority and its more than 100 days since Andrej Babiš’ government has been in power although it has still to win a vote of confidence.

On other policy areas, the two parties have made some progress. The Social Democrats have underlined ANO’s promises not to increase the amounts patients pay up font for health care services; a pledge to safeguard the independence of public media, and the pledge that the state healthcare system will not be privatised.

But there are still basic rifts. The Social Democrats are pushing for employees to be paid 60 percent of their wages for the first three days they are sick instead of the current system where they get nothing. And they would also like to see tax rises and the introduction of a special tax on the profits of the biggest banks in the country, which are foreign-owned. The Social Democrats highlight record bank profits for 2017 and say that they should be making more of a contribution to the overall budget.