Latest storm in coalition government leaves junior party weakened and divided

Radek John, photo: CTK

The storm that threatened to bring down the centre-right Czech government appears to be over, but it has left Public Affairs, the junior coalition party that started it, badly battered. As Public Affairs leaders went back to the negotiating table to debate what appear to be face-saving concessions, the smallest party in government fielded questions from reporters about the deepening split in party ranks.

Radek John,  photo: CTK
The proverbial saying about sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind was effectively put to the test in Czech politics this week. The junior Public Affairs party which threatened to bring down the government unless its coalition partners met a series of far-reaching demands has been forced to back-track after its own ministers rebelled against the decision and refused to hand their resignations to the prime minister. After the prime minister called the party’s bluff and expressed readiness to debate early elections, Public Affairs leader Radek John made a humiliating U-turn.

“Our ministers’ resignations would have scuppered negotiations and we have come to the conclusion that that would not be right. So we are ready to negotiate.”

While Mr. John insists that the party had achieved its goal in setting in motion talks on changes to the cabinet and a review of the government’s policy statement, the extent of those concessions remains to be seen. Moreover the prime minister has given Public Affairs a deadline of six days for a new pledge of allegiance to the government’s fiscal reform plans.

Tomáš Jarolím,  photo: CTK
While the junior coalition party now appears to be in a highly conciliatory mood which bodes well for a coalition truce next week, the deepening rifts within the party are seen as a serious threat to the government’s future. The party’s regional leadership is divided over whether to continue to support a government that has the lowest public support rating ever. The party’s deputy chair Tomáš Jarolím who instigated the move to leave the cabinet, has resigned, but it is not clear how much support the pro-government faction within the party actually has and whether the number of government-loyal Public Affairs deputies will suffice to maintain a comfortable majority which is essential for the government’s planned reforms.

For the time being party chair Radek John refuses to admit there is a problem.

“There is no split in the deputies’ club, there are no rebel groups, we are united on our negotiating position but as regards the details of that position that will be for the prime minister’s ears.“

Vít Bárta,  photo: CTK
However the coming hours and weeks could bring matters to a head. Many in the party are reportedly furious over its latest self-humiliation and moreover the man believed to be the real force behind the party-the head of its deputies’ club Vít Bárta – is currently being tried on corruption charges. The verdict – whatever it turns out to be - will inevitably have repercussions not only on his own party but on the whole coalition government.