Fate of reforms uncertain as weakened government comes under fire

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK

The heat is on Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s centre right government. Half-way though implementing its programme of fiscal reforms it is racked by internal conflict, under fire from the opposition and growing pressure from trade unions. There are now serious doubts as to whether it can meet its set goals.

Photo: CTK
On Monday more than half of the country’s teachers went on strike in protest against low wages and an estimated two thousand people gathered outside the Office of the Government to voice their dissatisfaction with the government’s reforms. With prices steadily rising, the pressure is unlikely to ease and trade unions are gearing up for a one-hour nation-wide warning strike on June 24th, which is expected to paralyze Prague city transport and cause disruptions around the country. Not an enviable position for the prime minister, whose ability to push through further reforms is now weakened by a number of rebels within each of the governing parties. Yet, as on previous occasions, he appears ready to ride out the storm. Over the weekend he called the rebels’ bluff, telling them he would seek support for a minority government if he could not rely on their votes and he made it clear that he blames the opposition for Monday’s protests.

Mirek Topolánek, photo: CTK
“We have held intensive talks with trade unions in the education sector and its employees have received as large a piece of the state budget as possible. In fact they were given more than others. So there is no good reason for going ahead with the strike.”

Whether or not the opposition is behind the growing trade union protests, it is certainly taking full advantage of the government’s crisis. Last week the Social Democrats called for early elections and advised the prime minister to sort out his problems or resign. Moreover, the Social Democrats are now refusing to pair-off absent deputies in the lower house, a practice that enabled cabinet ministers to go on foreign visits and attend sessions of the EC. Not a happy state of affairs for a country which is expected to take over the EU presidency in January of 2009. So could this be the end of the road for the Topolánek government? Political analyst Jiři Pehe says that is unlikely, simply because it is in the opposition’s best interests to retain the status quo.

“It is not in the interest of the opposition Social Democrats to trigger early elections or a serious government crisis right now. I think that the Social Democrats realize that it is to their best advantage to keep this weak government in power – especially in view of the upcoming regional and Senate elections as well as elections to the European Parliament next year. The opposition has everything to gain from maintaining the present state of affairs.”

So you predict that the government will survive, but will remain very weak?

“I think the government will remain in office, it will be very weak and will be more-or-less tolerated by the Social Democrats. If I may venture a guess, I would say that the Social Democrats will not even risk calling a vote of no-confidence in the government over the next few months because this time around it could succeed and that is not in their interest.”