New Czech prime minister appointed amid Covid epidemic, energy crisis and soaring inflation

President Miloš Zeman (right) appointed Petr Fiala to the post of prime minister

President Miloš Zeman appointed Civic Democrat leader Petr Fiala to the post of prime minister at Lany chateau on Sunday. The appointment ceremony, in which the two men were divided by a Plexiglas wall, was arranged so as to meet strict hygiene norms after President Zeman tested positive for Covid on Thursday.

Fiala, 57, university professor and leader of the Civic Democrats, who led the SPOLU electoral alliance to victory in October’s general elections, is taking the helm at a critical time for the country. His cabinet will have to deal with the Covid health crisis, pay out financial compensation to hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs in view of the restrictions imposed; address the energy crisis and a soaring inflation which is approaching six percent. Fiala himself described it as “the biggest crisis in the country’s modern history.”

The Civic Democrat leader has promised to affect a radical change in Czech politics –both in terms of government and political ethics.

Fiala told reporters his administration would cut the 2022 budget deficit, currently projected at 377 billion crowns ($16.91 billion) to under 300 billion, raise defence spending to 2% of the GDP by 2025 and bring back a human-rights based foreign policy.

He said his cabinet would hold a pro-EU and pro-NATO foreign policy line, support cooperation within the Visegrad group and revise relations with China and Russia.

In mid-2022, the Czech Republic is due to take up the EU rotating presidency, at a time when the alliance will need to address key issues such as post-Covid economic recovery, the energy crisis and the Green Deal.

Petr Fiala | Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK

Commentators note that this could be a potential stumbling block for Fiala’s administration since his Civic Democratic Party is traditionally Eurosceptic, while the other coalition parties, most notably the Pirate Party, are strongly pro-EU.

While the new prime minister has pledged to cut spending to meet euro adoption criteria, the five party coalition has not committed to any concrete steps on euro adoption and is not likely to during its term in office.

Fiala’s cabinet, made up of 18 ministers, must now be appointed to office by President Miloš Zeman, who has expressed strong reservations to one nominee.

The new prime minister has indicated he will stand firmly behind all his nominees,  but at the same time he will be under pressure to see his cabinet appointed as soon as possible in order to start dealing with the problems at hand. He told journalists this week that in view of the Covid crisis “every day counts” and stressed that his administration was ready to take over responsibility for the country immediately.

Who is Petr Fiala?

Fiala, 57, political scientist and former rector of Masaryk University, is a leader whose political style is one of consensus.

He entered top level politics as an expert in 2011 when he was appointed chief aide for science to then Civic Democrat prime minister Petr Nečas. In 2012 he was appointed Minister of Education, Youth and Sports in Nečas' government, remaining in the post until Nečas resigned in the midst of a huge scandal which led to the fall of the government in 2013.

In the 2013 general election, Fiala won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies as an independent, but he soon joined the ranks of the Civic Democratic Party, which was reeling from a humiliating election defeat.

In 2014, Fiala ran for the top party post and won.  At the time, few believed that the soft-spoken professor had what it takes to bring the scandal-ridden party back to the political limelight.

In the next general elections in 2017, the Civic Democrats finished second, almost doubling their vote count from the previous ballot. But Fiala refused to enter into a coalition with Andrej Babiš, leaving the Civic Democrats in the opposition benches for another four years.

In 2021 Fiala’s Civic Democrats forged an election alliance with TOP 09 and the Christian Democrats and won October’s general elections. Fiala was the obvious candidate for prime minister. He promptly negotiated a coalition agreement with the other anti-Babis alliance which did well in the elections –the Pirate Party and Mayors and Independents. Together they have a comfortable 108 seat majority in the lower house.

Fiala’s skills as a mediator, seen as one of his strongest assets, will now be taxed to the limit. Political commentators say the task of keeping together a coalition of five fairly diverse parties who joined forces primarily to oust Andrej Babiš, will be exceptionally difficult.

Photo: Roman Vondrouš,  ČTK