Doctors’ victory seen weakening government’s bargaining position

Petr Nečas et Leoš Heger, photo: CTK

Doctors unions have agreed to a government pay offer putting more money in their pockets immediately and over the following years. The deal has still to be officially backed by the government, but it is seen as being as good as done. Thousands of doctors should in the following days start to withdraw their resignations and the threat of a mass exodus from hospitals appears to have been averted. As the dust on the bitter dispute settles, we asked political analyst Jiří Pehe what he made of the bitter dispute and who he thought had triumphed in the end.

PM Petr Nečas, health minister Leoš Heger (right), photo: CTK
“It was a victory for the doctors because in the end they prevailed although they were under tremendous pressure to give up and there were attempts to split the movement. At the same time it is a compromise which many doctors knew when they started this process that they would have to settle for because they would not achieve everything they wanted. But in the end they achieved quite a lot and from that point of view it is definitely their victory.”

And do you think that the government handled this well? Could they not have come to an agreement a few months ago?

“Well, I think that the government handled this in the worst possible way because, quite frankly, anyone could have predicted that the government does not have much of a chance against this strong lobby of highly qualified people as long as they stay together. The government decided to wage a war against the doctors. The media joined them, at least a lot of journalists and media organisations joined the government, in this effort. In the end the doctors prevailed and they got what they wanted. So quite clearly this is seen by the public, or will be seen by the public, as government weakness, no matter what the public thinks about the doctors.”

The head of doctors’ trade unions Martin Engel, the head of the Czech doctors’ chamber, Milan Kubek (right), photo: CTK
Do you think this disproves the idea that labour action cannot get any results in the Czech Republic or were the doctors a special instance?

“Well, I think that the doctors constitute a special group. It is a group of highly qualified people who cannot be easily replaced by anyone. So, for example, the calls to send army doctors in to replace them was quite naive. But it is quite possible that other social groups will follow them. Though, of course, they probably have a much smaller chance because they could be at least replaced temporarily. I think that the groups that can succeed are like the doctors, people who have high qualifications and where it is not easy to replace them.”

Overall, what has happened with the doctors will stoke up problems for the government. Already other groups are saying they have got this and that and we should be getting that as well. There are the nurses, firemen and the police. When the government is trying to cut wages and conditions, is this not going to be a problem?

“Well, I do not think this bodes well for the government simply because it is an example and the government has not handled this affair very well. So it can be perceived by other groups as weak. But of course, on top of that the government faces another important fact and that is that the Czech Republic has a very high level of corruption where every year, according to some estimates, about 100 billion crowns disappears in various corruption schemes. And therefore these groups that want more money have no reason to be moderate. They can argue we are just trying to get what is ours and that we do not want to pay money into a system that is corrupt, where money saved by us gets lost in corruption schemes.”

Do you think that heads will roll as a result of this? Health ministers do not have a very long record in office over the last decade or so in the Czech Republic. Do you think the current minister will be forced to stand down in the future?

“I do not think the health minister will fall as a result because in the end he has done what he could. So I think he will stay. And in fact I would be surprised if he did not earn some popularity points because on the hand it can be perceived of as a government defeat but on the other a lot of people are really relieved that in the end there was a compromise and that at the start of March they do not have to worry about going to the hospital or other medical facility.”