Planned cabinet reshuffle leads to clash between PM, Christian Democrats

Jiří Čunek, photo: CTK

A cabinet reshuffle planned by Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has threatened to further undermine the country’s weak government, only days after the Czech Republic took up the EU presidency. At the centre of the dispute: the prime minister’s intention to replace controversial Christian Democrat leader Jiří Čunek as the minister for regional development. Making such a change will be difficult: on Tuesday a majority of Christian Democrats backed their leader and threw Mr Topolánek a loop, recommending he dismiss the country’s finance minister – a close ally – instead. Now he and the Christian Democrats are at loggerheads.

Mirek Topolánek,  photo: CTK
A cabinet reshuffle has been on the cards ever since the coalition’s humiliating defeat in October’s regional and Senate elections. After months of dallying and speculation as to who would leave the Topolánek government, the prime minister finally promised action –saying that he would propose a radical shake-up affecting all three ruling parties.

Details of the reshuffle were to have been announced on Monday but were delayed after the leaders of the two smaller parties asked for extra time to debate the proposed changes with their party leaderships. Since then it has become clear just how small the prime minister’s manoeuvring space really is and how difficult it is for him to replace major players like Christian Democrat leader Jiří Čunek. Political analyst Vladimíra Dvořáková:

“The prime minister right now is in a very difficult situation and it is very difficult to explain why he has taken some decisions. It is unbelievable [on the part of the prime minister]: to suggest something like this during the first days of the Czech EU Presidency, leading to a very, very deep internal crisis in the cabinet. There is a risk that if he asks the chair of the Christian Democratic Party, Mr Čunek, to leave the government, the whole Christian Democratic Party will follow. That would leave the cabinet in an even worse position than now, and at risk of losing in a vote of no-confidence.”

Jiří Čunek,  photo: CTK
To say the prime minister’s move against Mr Čunek at a time when the government is so demonstrably weak is a poor choice of timing is an understatement and many Christian Democrats know it. On Tuesday, they responded, albeit by a slim majority, in defence of their leader by suggesting that Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek should be replaced instead. Although Mr Kalousek too is a Christian Democrat, he is a key Topolánek ally with close sympathies to the Civic Democratic Party. The prime minister promptly came out in his defence, making it clear that the finance minister was staying or there would be no government:

Miroslav Kalousek,  photo: CTK
“[My] government will either be of a line-up I propose…and that includes Mr. Kalousek or it won’t exist. We are headed for a situation which will not be at all easy. If I am to guarantee success regarding the economy, it is far more important I have a minister who serves the country’s citizens than his party alone. Miroslav Kalousek fits the bill.”

Legally, the prime minister has the final word on nominations to the cabinet, but in this case he is bound by a political agreement to seek approval from his coalition partners. As a result, some now expect Mr Topolánek will have little choice but ultimately to budge, leaving the option of no changes, either major or cosmetic. Vladimíra Dvořáková again:

“Because the Christian Democratic Party may not accept changes in the cabinet proposed by Mr Topolánek, it may be that there will be no changes at all.”

The broader leadership of the Christian Democratic Party is to address the situation with its leader and Mr Kalousek further and reach a final decision on Friday. The prime minister has meanwhile scheduled a final announcement on the reshuffle for January 12.