New Czech government faces first serious blow

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

Seven months after the country's inconclusive general elections, the Czech Republic finally has a legitimate government. Prime Minister Topolanek's centre right ruling coalition made up of the Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and the Green Party won a vote of confidence in the lower house of Parliament. But now, a little over a week after the vote, the country's new centre-right government faced its first serious blow.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK
It was an upbeat moment for the ruling coalition - of the 198 deputies present, it got approval from 100. Its survival was secured by two rebel Social Democrat deputies who agreed to tolerate the government - by absenting themselves from the assembly hall - in order to end months of political paralysis.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek says his government's mission is clear:

"When we will no longer be able to push through our reform programme, or reform steps, we will try to call early elections to let people decide what the political situation should be for a second time."

Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK
For Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek the defection of two of his party's deputies was a bad blow:

"I think that these two gentlemen formed a new coalition party - a fourth coalition party - and it is not a problem of the Social Democratic Party at this moment."

You've said earlier that many of the new ministers in the government are quite inexperienced. Could you name a few and tell us what you think their biggest challenges will be?

"I think that the majority of government ministers have no experience in management, the industry, and leadership roles. That is not to the government's advantage and it is a great problem for the Czech Republic."

Helena Trestikova, photo: CTK
And Mr Paroubek's hopes have turned into reality - the new cabinet has barely had time to get to work and already scandals surrounding two of its ministers are splashed across the front pages. On Wednesday culture minister Helena Trestikova handed in her resignation because of "political pressure" over the appointment of a deputy minister she did not want.

Although the scandal around the culture minister's resignation will probably soon blow over, the case of Regional Development Minister Jiri Cunek looks far more serious. The police claim they have evidence that Mr. Cunek accepted a half a million crown bribe when he was still in regional politics two years ago. Unfortunately, Mr. Cunek himself has not been very convincing in explaining the origin of the money - he first told the media that it was family savings, but later changed his story for the police saying he couldn't remember where the money came from. Political analyst Petr Just says that, in one way or another, the government will have to pay the price.

Jiri Cunek, photo: CTK
"These two problems will definitely weaken the government, and we have to keep in mind that the government in itself is weak, so any instability, any kind of problems -even small problems - will rock the boat and lead to further instability. This is the kind of situation that Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek and the opposition in general welcome because the weaker the government - the stronger the opposition."

Although the Social Democrats have not ruled out some degree of cooperation, it is clear that the new government will have a hard time implementing its strong pro-reform policy programme of tax changes, public spending cuts and health and pension reforms. This especially in view of the fact that the two rebel left-wing deputies have not pledged across-the-board-support for the cabinet - but merely enabled its existence.