Social Democrats’ dramatic infighting complicates coalition talks

Photo: CTK

Though they had a poorer showing than expected, the Social Democrats came first in the weekend’s elections, prompting speculation they could form a government with ANO and the Christian Democrats. However, in the last couple of days the Social Democrats have been torn apart by a dramatic power struggle – and for now it is not entirely clear who can represent them in coalition talks.

Photo: CT24
The Social Democrats had led consistently in the polls ahead of the elections. Indeed, even after vote counting began on Saturday, party chairman Bohuslav Sobotka was saying they hoped to take up to a third of the ballot.

The reality was rather different. Though the Social Democrats did come first, they only got 20.45 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sobotka said that, as the leader of the largest grouping in the lower house, he would soon begin talks with most of the other party leaders.

Michal Hašek and Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
However, for some time his position has been under threat from a faction around number two man Michal Hašek that is believed to be close to a former chairman, President Miloš Zeman.

On Sunday they struck. After an alleged secret meeting with the president, Mr. Hašek and his allies called on Mr. Sobotka to shoulder the blame for the poor result and quit. They also voted to remove the chair from the Social Democrats’ negotiating team. Michal Hašek:

“I don’t know what more would need to happen for the party leadership to call on the chairman to consider his responsibility and resign, after five hours of stormy debate, than the worst results in the modern history of the Social Democrats.”

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek,  ČRo
However, rather than falling on his sword the mild-mannered Mr. Sobotka has dug his heels in.

On Monday, he, party allies and an estimated 1,000 supporters held a passionate demonstration at Prague Castle, denouncing what they describe as a putsch orchestrated by a power-hungry Mr. Zeman.

Mr. Sobotka told reporters he was going to continue on his stated path and would hold talks with the heads of ANO and the Christian Democrats – the parties that look the most likely coalition partners.

Pavel Bělobrádek,  photo: CTK
“I will negotiate as the head of the party with Mr. Babiš and Mr. Bělobrádek. I have a clear mandate from the Social Democrats and our central executive committee to form a government if we won the elections. I will continue in that effort. I won’t be deterred by any such ridiculous attempts to remove me.”

Mr. Hašek’s side are also attempting to form a coalition and have contacted other leaders.

However, both ANO and the Christian Democrats seem to be leaning toward Bohuslav Sobotka, with both parties saying they plan to sit down with him in the near future. This could strengthen his hand considerably.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
Meanwhile, he has called for a meeting in a week and a half’s time of the party’s central executive committee, at which he will put his position to the vote.

We may have to wait until then to find out who is really in control of the election-winning party, and for substantial talks on the shape of the next Czech government to actually begin.

That said, it is the Czech president who appoints the prime minister designate; how Mr. Zeman will decide to act, regardless of what happens within his former party, is another unknown.