Public Affairs told to accept restitution deal or leave government

Cracks in the three-party governing coalition appeared again this week, as the junior Public Affairs party resisted approval of a church property restitution deal. For the senior Civic Democratic and TOP 09 parties, the deal is a major achievement that has been years in the making. When Public Affairs, which questions aspects of the agreement, attempted to put conditions on its support, the response was clear: approve the deal or leave the government.

Public Affairs has often positioned itself as the dissident party in the governing coalition, even siding with the parliamentary opposition on occasion. In previous instances, though, the stakes were not as high as with the current issue of church property restitution, which has been under negotiation for the last two decades. Civic Democrat Zbyněk Stanjura told Czech Television on Monday why his party has no intention of budging on a done deal.

“This agreement was concluded by all three coalition parties, as well as 17 churches and religious organisations. Twenty different sides therefore came to an agreement that they confirmed with their signatures, and what we are saying is that we are going to respect that agreement both in the government and in Parliament.”

Zbyněk Stanjura
As per the government’s agreement, churches that lost property under communism would receive 56 percent of it back and get 59 billion crowns in compensation for the rest, payable over a period of 20 or more years. With the Finance Ministry warning of 30 billion more crowns in budget cuts to come this year alone, Public Affairs now wants to cover this sum by integrating ministries – namely those for the environment and regional development, while at the same time reportedly eying a change in the captaincy of the Interior Ministry that they previously ran. That idea apparently ran straight into a wall at a surprisingly quick meeting of coalition leaders on Monday, as Public Affairs chairman Radek John described.

“They gave us an ultimatum, saying that if we do not give our unconditional support for the church restitution and stop talking about saving money, then the government will fall.”

Radek John
This makes for a high-stakes call for Public Affairs, which has polled at between 2 and 4% since being wracked by corruption scandals last year – a position that would leave it no chance of a parliamentary mandate in hypothetical early elections. What’s more, should the junior party decide to stick to its guns on this issue, Civic Democrats and TOP 09 could likely manage a minority government without them. Public Affairs, it seems, therefore, has precious little to gain by swimming against the current. Nonetheless, the party’s leadership on Tuesday morning proved disinterested in quietly backing down, stalling five votes to five on whether to support the agreement. They will meet again in the evening before Wednesday’s cabinet vote on the agreement.