Government crisis over, but problems with police reform remain

Milan Chovanec, photo: CTK

A dispute that has shaken the Czech government came to a head on Wednesday as Interior Minister Milan Chovanec signed a highly controversial plan to reform the police force. For several hours the fate of the Sobotka government hung in the balance, before ANO leader Andrej Babiš announced that his party would not follow up on its threat to leave the ruling coalition.

Milan Chovanec,  photo: CTK
A plan to merge the country’s organized crime and financial crime units resulted in the worst crisis in the two-year rule of the Sobotka government. Faced with the threat of the second strongest party walking out over the planned reform, the Social Democrats put the fate of the government on the line, arguing that the planned change was fully within its competences. Interior Minister Milan Chovanec even fired a verbal shot at ANO leader Andrej Babiš who accused him of undermining the independence of the police force.

"The independence of the police is a value worth defending. The police force will never become a division of [Andrej Babiš’ empire] Agrofert."

ANO leader Andrej Babiš who threatened to quit the government if the Social Democrats enforced the reform, called an emergency meeting of the party leadership and emerged to tell reporters that his party would remain in the government.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: CTK
“We have decided not to withdraw from the coalition agreement at present, but we want it revised in order to make a restart. Many of our members called for us to walk out, but the majority of us think it is important that we fulfill our mandate.”

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka who had departed several hours earlier on an official visit to China, tweeted that he welcomed what he called ANO’s “rational approach” and said he was not against revising the coalition deal. What such a revision would involve remains unclear and many see it as a face-saving move on the part of ANO.

The outcome of the most dramatic stand-off in the history of the Sobotka government is generally seen as a victory for the Social Democrats, who were not afraid to call ANOs bluff, ahead of the autumn Senate and regional elections. However the party has not come out of it with a clean slate either because even those who agree that the reform of the police force is an expert decision fully within the competence of the police president and interior minister are asking why it was so poorly communicated and not properly consulted with the State Attorney’s Office.

Robert Šlachta,  photo: CTK
Whatever damage it does to relations within the ruling coalition, that which it has already caused to the police force is much bigger: dozens of experienced officers and investigators have left the force – one of them the highly respected head of the country’s unit for fighting organized crime Robert Šlachta. And many argue that the month-long postponement of the reform agreed this week as well as the promise to belatedly take into account the reservations of state attorneys is “too little, too late”.