Freedom Union decides to stay in government, for now at least

Vice-chairman Frantisek Pelc and chairman Petr Mares at the Freedom Union meeting, photo: CTK

The right-of-centre Freedom Union, the smallest party in the ruling coalition, held a five-hour emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss how to deal with the departure of two of the party's MPs. The two men's decision to leave the party has called into question the stability of the coalition, which has a fragile majority of just one seat in the lower house.

Vice-chairman Frantisek Pelc and chairman Petr Mares at the Freedom Union meeting,  photo: CTK
Rob Cameron has been following the story, and joins me in the studio now. Rob, exactly what did the Freedom Union leadership decide last night?

"Most importantly, they decided to remain in government, for the time being at least. Twenty-two members of the party leadership voted in favour of staying, while five voted against. There had been calls for the party to pull out of coalition, essentially before they were thrown out. In the end though it was decided that it would be too much of a risk for both the party and the country: if that did happen, the Social Democrats might have been forced to form a minority government with Communist support, and the Freedom Union would have been the ones to blame."

Two Freedom Union MPs have now left the party. The government has 101 deputies in the 200-seat lower house. Surely that means the government has now lost its majority?

Tomas Vrbik,  photo: CTK
"Oddly enough, no. Both men - Tomas Vrbik and Marian Bielesz - remain members of the Freedom Union caucus or parliamentary party, which means they should - on most issues - vote with, not against the government. But crucially they've both said they'll vote according to their consciences on issues they see as vital to right-wing voters."

And I gather the biggest party in the coalition, the Social Democrats, has warned the Freedom Union to keep them under control?

"That's right. The deputy leader of the Social Democrats, Zdenek Skromach, says if the party's MPs fail to support two key government bills, the Freedom Union will be thrown out of the government. So it's now a question of whether Tomas Vrbik and Marian Bielesz really have the guts to vote in a way which could see the Freedom Union cast out into the political wilderness, and the ushering in of a minority government. We'll have to wait until parliament resumes on Tuesday to find out."

These two MPs say they're simply following their right-wing principles. Could anything else be behind it do you think?

"Certainly. Some analysts say their decision to leave the Freedom Union is a very shrewd one, a classic piece of cold political calculation. The Freedom Union looks like a party heading for extinction. When it was formed in 1998, it enjoyed around 18 percent in the opinion polls. Today, that support has fallen to around 3 percent. If it fails to get at least five percent at the next elections, it won't be able to re-enter parliament, and the 10 MPs in the Freedom Union's parliamentary party will basically be out of a job. There's speculation that a number of Freedom Union MPs are planning to either join or rejoin the largest opposition party, the Civic Democrats. And it's rumoured that Tomas Vrbik and Marian Bielesz are among them."

Marian Bielesz,  photo: CTK
So in a word - is a minority government on the cards?

"Possibly, but not yet. Things will be clearer after European, Senate and local elections later this year. If the Freedom Union does really badly in those elections, then it could be the end of party leader Petr Mares, and also the time when many members start thinking of deserting the sinking ship."