Soc Dems set ultimatum to stay in govt, but no real deadline, in culture minister row

Social Democrats’ party leadership, photo: ČTK/Michal Kamaryt

The Social Democrats’ party leadership on Monday set a final condition for remaining in the minority government of Andrej Babiš – that his ally President Miloš Zeman appoints their nominee for culture minister. But while urging the prime minister to use his constitutional power to ensure the appointment, the party’s ultimatum did not include a deadline.

Social Democrats’ party leadership,  photo: ČTK/Michal Kamaryt
According to the Czech constitution, the head of state must dismiss ministers upon the request of the head of government. But the constitution sets no deadlines in this regard.

Despite their ultimatum, neither have the Social Democrats set a deadline, though their leadership did agree to support chairman Jan Hamáček’s mandate to negotiate whether to remain in government with Andrej Babiš’s ANO party.

The current crisis stems in large part from President Miloš Zeman’s refusal to sack the current culture minister, whom critics accuse of being ineffective, and replace him with the Social Democrats’ choice, Michal Šmarda.

Political scientist Patrik Eichler of the Masaryk Democratic Academy, a think tank associated with the party, says their presidium meeting shows Hamáček enjoys his party’s confidence – whatever lies ahead. And that the premier is keen to preserve the coalition.

Michal Šmarda,  photo: ČTK/Michal Kamaryt
“We can see that Andrej Babiš truly wants the government to continue. He went to the presidium of another political party, which is debating his cases, his problems, which are destabilising his premiership. So that’s a huge investment of political capital.

“He will work very hard to get President Miloš Zeman to finally agree to the nomination and appointment of Michal Šmarda as culture minster…I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow! But I think it will happen this summer.”

President Zeman has used ambiguities in the Czech constitution to play an outsized political role from the seat of the traditionally ceremonial post. It’s anybody’s guess how much longer he will delay appointing a new culture minister – though he promised to sack the current one, by July 31.

The Social Democrats agreed on Monday to decide on “further steps” at month’s end. By a vote of 37-5, the party presidium on Monday in effect gave Hamáček authority to quit the government, should President Zeman not act on the culture minister issue by then.

But if the culture minister question is settled, how long might peace last within the minority government? Political scientist Patrik Eichler again:

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Kateřina Šulová
“Until autumn, I think. In September or October, we can expect the results of the audit and decision regarding conflicts of interest of Andrej Babiš as the head of government. And of course there will be intense debate over the state budget, which must be sent to the lower house in October.”

The prime minister is hoping to secure budget finances for increased welfare spending and investment against a backdrop of slowing economic growth and massive protests against his government.

The coalition’s collapse would complicate those efforts, but it would not automatically trigger early elections. And Babiš has said he would try to rule, possibly with the support of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party.