No Velvet Divorce in sight as government crisis deepens

Stanislav Gross (Foto: CTK)

On Wednesday afternoon a crowd of about two hundred braved the cold and gathered outside the Czech government offices, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Stanislav Gross. They are part of a group of citizens gathering signatures to put pressure on Mr Gross to step down over his family's personal finances. So far they have gathered about 25,000 signatures. In the meantime the main players in the government crisis, the leadership of the three coalition parties met on Wednesday evening to discuss ways out of the current deadlock. David Vaughan is with me in the studio. Was there any progress?

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, photo: CTK
"In a word - no. The meeting of the three parties' leadership by all accounts turned into a three-hour slanging match. Since last week the Christian Democrats, the second largest party in the coalition, have been calling for Mr Gross to resign, because of questions raised over his and his wife's financial affairs, and in this respect they did in fact tone down their demands. The Christian Democrat leader, Miroslav Kalousek is now saying that it might be feasible for Mr Gross to stay on - but only on certain conditions, and he has also suggested a delay in reaching a solution till the prime minister's party, the Social Democrats, hold their annual congress next month."

But that wasn't enough for the Social Democrats...

The Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek, photo: CTK
"It certainly wasn't. They were angered by what they saw as a holier-than-thou tone in the Christian Democrats' new demands - which include a request that Mr Gross explain to parliament his family's business activities. I should stress that Social Democrats have firmly rallied round Mr Gross in insisting that he has done nothing wrong. As for the Christian Democrats' suggestion that the parties take a 'time-out' and wait till the Social Democrats' congress in March before resolving the crisis, Mr Gross interpreted that as a direct attempt to meddle in his party's internal affairs. It was a sign of how bad things have got that after the talks, for first time, the coalition parties each spoke to the press separately."

So is this the end of the line?

President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, photo: CTK
"Not quite. The prime minister insists that the coalition - for the time being - is still intact, and that there is still space for talks. But Mr Gross himself has acknowledged that the degree of personal animosity that has emerged between himself and Miroslav Kalousek is so strong that it will be hard for them ever to work together again. So this is anything but a Velvet Divorce."

Can Mr Gross rule without the Christian Democrats, if their three ministers resign or are sacked from the government?

"I think he'll try, because early elections would probably be a disaster for his party. But his problem is that the smallest coalition party, the Freedom Union, have said that they won't serve in a minority government that relies on the tacit support of the Communists. The President, Vaclav Klaus, will also certainly not be keen on a government dependent on the Communists - this was one of the things he ruled out when he approved the current coalition. On Thursday morning Mr Gross told the president that he would like him to play a more active role in looking for a solution, so it will be interesting to see if, and in what way, Mr Klaus will take up the offer."