Outlook bleak for centre-right coalition amid Tlustý rebellion over church law

Vlastimil Tlustý

When Mirek Topolánek’s centre-right coalition government came to power in January 2007, it held the slimmest majority – two seats - in parliament, and has survived pretty much on a knife-edge ever since. But this week it seems to have lost even that wafer-thin majority thanks to a rebellion in Mr Topolanek’s Civic Democratic Party over the restitution of church property. Now, newspaper commentators are predicting the government’s inevitable demise.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
The centre-right government was dealt a serious blow this week as it battled to introduce important legislation to compensate churches for property confiscated by the communist regime. The bill was blocked by three MPs from Mr Topolánek’s own Civic Democratic Party headed by Vlastimil Tlustý, who was briefly finance minister in a previous short-lived Topolánek administration.

Mr Tlustý et al say the church bill – which will see 83 billion crowns (around five billion US dollars) given to the church as compensation for confiscated property – is deeply flawed, and this week joined forces with the left-wing opposition, effectively putting the law on ice by forcing the creation of a special parliamentary commission to examine whether the church should really get so much cash.

This produced a furious reaction from Prime Minister Topolánek, who says he no longer considers Mr Tlustý to be a Civic Democrat MP.

The church restitution bill is just one piece of legislation. But the dispute has deep ramifications for the coalition government. Mr Topolánek badly needs the church bill to satisfy his coalition partners, the Christian Democrats. As well as the church bill, Mr Tlustý and his two fellow rebels are also threatening to block other legislation, such as anti-discrimination legislation demanded by the EU but opposed by President Václav Klaus.

Vlastimil Tlustý
If these three coalition MPs continue to vote against coalition legislation, one has to wonder whether the coalition is still viable. If they join the left-wing opposition again, to scupper the government’s health reforms or vote against the planned U.S. radar base for example, the then coalition government is essentially a lame duck. For his part Mr Tlustý says the prime minister has declared war on him, and he is merely defending himself. Observers, however, say he’s still furious at being passed over as finance minister in the current government.

Commentator Martin Weiss wrote in Lidové Noviny on Wednesday that the coalition is effectively on a life support machine and all the signs of an imminent political death are present. Hospodářské Noviny’s main headline on Wednesday was “The Day The Government Lost Its Majority”.

Regular parliamentary elections are not due for another two years. Many are asking how long the government can last. That will be partly up to the opposition Social Democrats and when they decide to test the coalition’s viability - the party is talking about a vote next year – and partly up to Mr Tlustý & co and how far they’re willing to go.

However, in this volatile atmosphere, if the government fails, for example, to get the U.S. radar base approved in parliament, or if its already emasculated public finance reforms are scuppered by the opposition acting with the Tlustý faction and/or the Christian Democrats, it’s hard to see how the coalition could carry on.