Paroubek meets Topolanek for start of crucial post-election talks

Mirek Topolanek and Jiri Paroubek, photo: CTK

Leaders of the two biggest parties in parliament held their first official talks on Friday since the elections. The meeting, between Mirek Topolanek, leader of the Civic Democrats, who won the elections, and prime minister Jiri Paroubek, leader of the Social Democrats, who came second, marks the beginning of efforts towards finding a way out of the political stalemate that emerged after the polls produced a hung parliament.

Mirek Topolanek and Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
The press conference that followed the meeting produced no surprises. Mr Paroubek said his party would not support Mr Topolanek's centre-right coalition when it asks for a vote of confidence in parliament. Mr Topolanek needs that support - any right-of-centre coalition would command exactly half of the 200 seats in the lower house. Unless at least one opposition MP either votes for the government or leaves the chamber, Mr Topolanek cannot become prime minister.

The obvious question is why Mirek Topolanek is seeking a vote of confidence if it's already doomed to fail. For one thing, nothing can be ruled out. There might be a defection from the ranks of the governing Social Democrats. That, however, seems unlikely, given Mr Paroubek's grip on his party.

Some commentators, therefore, argue that Mr Topolanek is merely going through the motions of trying to form a government. This first attempt, they say, is simply a piece of political theatre for those who voted for the Civic Democrats. Those commentators claim that what the two men really discussed at Friday's meeting was the future division of power after the vote of confidence in the proposed centre-right cabinet fails.

Jiri Paroubek,  photo: CTK
There are a number of possibilities for what form that division of power might take. Both men on Friday repeated that a grand coalition was, at this stage, out of the question. The words "at this stage" should be underlined in red, three times over.

Another option is a minority Civic Democrat cabinet, tolerated by the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Greens. Mr Paroubek, meanwhile, stressed that his party was in favour of a caretaker government of technocrats. That, too, seems unlikely.

As for what happens next - more talks, it seems. Both Mirek Topolanek and Jiri Paroubek said talks between them would continue. Indeed, Mr Topolanek said the talks were merely at the beginning. That public willingness to engage in dialogue is key to understanding the current situation.

The Czech media have been banging on about the two smaller parties in Mr Topolanek's proposed coalition - the Christian Democrats and the Greens. But in a political stalemate, when neither side can form a viable government, they are almost bit players. The real story here is the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats, and how they divide power between them. Almost 70 percent of Czechs who voted in these elections voted for one of these two parties. They control 155 of 200 seats in the lower house. Neither party can govern effectively without the other's say so. It's all about them.

Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
In the short term, the Social Democrats' central committee meets on Saturday for talks. If any cracks are emerging in the Social Democrats' united front, that's where they could first become apparent. Next week, Mr Topolanek goes to see President Klaus with his plans for a cabinet. June 27 has been set as the provisional date for the newly elected parliament to meet for its inaugural session, to swear in the new MPs and elect a chairman and his deputies.

Once parliament is in session, Mr Paroubek's government will resign and Mr Topolanek can have his first shot at a vote of confidence. If it fails, it's round two, when President Klaus gets his second and last chance to choose someone to form a government. If that too fails, it goes to the newly-elected chairman of parliament. But at this point predictions enter the realm of stargazing - like trying to predict now who's going to win the World Cup.