Political goodwill in short supply ahead of Christmas holidays

Photo: CTK

It may be the season of peace and goodwill but there is very little of it to be seen in Czech politics. Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s centre-right government is deep in trouble and the opposition Social Democrats, currently riding high in the polls, are issuing ultimatums and tightening the noose.

Mirek Topolánek and ODS first deputy head David Vodrážka,  photo: CTK
It has not been an easy year for the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolánek. His government’s fragile majority in the lower house has crumbled, leaving the coalition at the mercy of five rebel deputies. The reforms that his cabinet pushed through while it still had the necessary 101 votes have had a painful backlash – a fall from public grace which resulted in the coalition parties’ humiliating defeat in October’s Senate and regional elections. Although the prime minister survived the blow and won a fresh mandate from his own Civic Democrats in November, his future and that of his government are once again uncertain. Just days before the country assumes the EU presidency, the opposition Social Democrats are threatening to bring down the government and making the ruling party backpedal on some of its reforms. Last Friday the opposition pushed through a bill partially scrapping the health fees introduced within the government’s health reform. Opposition leader Jiří Paroubek warned the ruling parties to let the bill through the Senate, where the coalition still has a majority, or else face a no-confidence motion in the lower house.

Jiří Paroubek,  photo: CTK
“If the coalition parties make the slightest change in the legislation without our consent we will call a no-confidence vote in the government. I say this in all seriousness.”

Given the fact that the opposition’s four previous attempts to bring down the government failed, the ruling parties might be tempted to call Mr. Paroubek’s bluff. However, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra’s cautious response shows that the government is uncertain of its support and is treading lightly.

“Of course there is space for negotiation and we are ready to negotiate with the Social Democrats, but it all depends on whether they really want to reach an agreement.”

Despite the conciliatory tone of cabinet members and the opposition leader’s bluster, it is not Mr. Paroubek who can torpedo the government. Its future is now in the hands of seven rebels and independents, who may each tip the scales one way or another. Two of the Civic Democratic Party’s own deputies have said they might help bring down the coalition. But then, no Czech MP has ever helped topple his own party. So what are the prime minister’s chances of riding out the storm as he has done on so many previous occasions? Pavel Severa of the ruling Christian Democrats says that at this point no-one really knows who has the upper hand in the lower house of Parliament.

Photo: CTK
“The only thing that I am certain about at present is that neither the coalition nor the opposition really know their strength at this point. Their forces are pretty balanced, but there are seven rebels and independents who may swing either way. So every vote in Parliament now carries an element of uncertainty – and the same holds for a no-confidence vote.”

Not an encouraging state of affairs for the prime minister who will spend Christmas finalizing the details of a planned cabinet reshuffle. A deal with the “free agents” or some kind of tolerance pact with the opposition could buy the ruling coalition extra time – but it will be a shaky and weak government that will come under pressure ahead of every crucial vote. Either way, the prime minister will be choosing the lesser of two evils.