Reforms back on track as Czech ruling coalition regains strength

Photo: Filip Jandourek

After weeks of instability, the centre-right government consolidated its position in the lower house on Wednesday, passing not only a vote of confidence but also some of its key reform bills: a package of controversial tax hikes, a bill on pension reform and that on church restitutions.

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
The wave of relief in the lower house was almost palpable on Wednesday as the centre-right government emerged from the worst crisis since taking office. The rebellion in the Civic Democratic party was put down and support for the ruling coalition went from 95 to 102 votes in the 200-strong lower house, enough to push ahead with the government’s flagship reforms and override any vetoes from the Senate or president. And the ruling coalition lost no time in applying its new-found strength: after pushing through a package of controversial tax hikes, it overturned the Senate’s veto of the bill on church restitutions, dispelling fears that the proposed legislation might be shelved indefinitely or even renegotiated. Powerless to prevent the bill’s approval, the opposition walked out of the assembly hall in protest and the bill was approved by 102 votes of the 103 deputies present.

A smiling Prime Minister Nečas greeted the outcome of the vote as a significant victory:

“This bill will resolve a painful legacy that we have been grappling with for 20 years and in the long run it will save the state money.”

Photo: Filip Jandourek
Under the bill, the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups are to receive physical property to the tune of 134 billion crowns and get financial compensation for the rest, to be paid over the next 30 years. After that, Czech churches would be completely separated from the state which would no longer contribute to their budgets.

The opposition on Wednesday slammed the legislation calling it “daylight robbery” and arguing that churches would receive far more than had been confiscated by the communists, moreover at a time when the country could ill afford it. The concerns of the newly established coalition party LIDEM that there may not be enough money in state coffers for the settlement, should the bill on tax hikes be scuppered, were swept away by the prime minister who is clearly impatient to see the government’s reforms back on track. LIDEM party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Karolína Peake said she was ready to take his word for it. In return, the party which split from Public Affairs and bolstered the government in an earlier crisis will gain a legitimate standing in the ruling coalition.

“The coalition agreement and the government’s policy programme, which were originally co-signed by Public Affairs, will be revised and signed by the newly established party LIDEM. Our partners in the coalition have also promised to support the establishment of a LIDEM deputies’ group in Parliament.”

Karolína Peake,  photo: CTK
Prime Minister Petr Nečas, whose future looked highly uncertain just a few days ago, is clearly back in control and ready to make up for the time lost. The president’s veto of the pension reform was overturned by the lower house on Wednesday and the reform will be implemented as planned at the start of 2013. And although the bill on tax hikes is likely to be rejected by the Senate the prime minister is confident that with its new-found majority the ruling coalition will override any veto sent its way. The opposition parties, which were hoping to trigger early elections, have conceded defeat, and are now waiting for a fresh opportunity to test the coalition’s unity.