Three parties hammer out coalition agreement

Stanislav Gross (left), Social Democrats leader Vldaimir Spidla and  Christian Democrats leader Cyril Svoboda, photo: CTK

Less than three weeks after the Czech Republic's parliamentary elections the victorious Social Democrats have hammered out an agreement to form a new coalition government with two junior partners, the right-of-centre Christian Democrats and Freedom Union. The Social Democrats will have ten seats in the new cabinet and the other two parties will have six between them. Talks are now continuing over who will get which post. David Vaughan reports.

Stanislav Gross (left), Social Democrats leader Vldaimir Spidla and  Christian Democrats leader Cyril Svoboda, photo: CTK
Despite the obvious political differences between the left-of-centre Social Democrats and the right-wing Freedom Union in particular, coalition talks have gone smoothly. The Social Democrats were convincing winners in the election, while the other two parties only managed to win fourteen percent of votes between them. So while the Social Democrats have had little difficulty laying down the basic rules for coalition talks, the Freedom Union and Christian Democrats have had little room for manoeuvre. They have had to make most of the significant compromises, and the new programme is very much that of a left-of-centre government. The only key ministry that is almost certain to go to one of the two smaller parties is the post of foreign minister, which will probably be held by Christian Democrat leader, Cyril Svoboda. Other ministries that the Social Democrats are willing to cede are transport, the environment and possibly culture and justice. The Social Democrat leader, and likely new prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, has proved a skilled negotiator, with a style that contrasts sharply with the bluntness of his predecessor, Milos Zeman.

But fears remain that the new government could prove fragile. From a position of weakness, with only 8 members of parliament, the Freedom Union, which led a right-wing, pro-business campaign, has had to abandon many of its principles. Many in the party are convinced that it has no choice in order to survive at all as a political entity. But some, including the party leader, Hana Marvanova, are less than happy. She has only reluctantly succumbed to pressure both from the Social Democrats and her fellow party members, to accept the coalition agreement.

So will the government, with a majority in parliament of just one vote, be strong enough to survive? I spoke with the philosopher and Social Democrat, Erazim Kohak, who began by telling me why he is optimistic.

"It is a question of compromise. It's a question of achieving the maximum, not of insisting on ones own point, and this, I think, will be the great strength of Mr Spidla's government."

But nonetheless, in many countries it would be quite unlikely to have a fairly firmly left-wing social democratic party in a coalition with a very solidly right-wing, liberal party like the Freedom Union. Obviously the Christian Democrats are nearer to the political centre, but the Freedom Union really is very firmly right of centre.

"I don't believe it is very firmly anything. In this country the labels right and left are not really very helpful, because when you speak with the majority of Czechs, they will always say that they support a right-wing policy - this is a reaction to the communist regime - but that they want a right-wing government that will provide social security, health care, retirement benefits, benefits to mothers with dependent children, schooling. Basically they want a socialist government which will make right-wing noises. I believe both Miss Marvanova and Mr Spidla are sufficiently good politicians to understand this and to be willing to give the electorate what it wants."

And so you think we will have a relatively stable government for the next four years.

"Yes, as much as anything is stable in this country. But I would be willing to bet that the government will not fall during its normal term, that is, it will last its four years"

In the meantime, the opposition Civic Democrats of Vaclav Klaus, still licking their wounds after election losses, will be watching closely for any possible weaknesses in the new government. Released from the self-imposed constraints of the opposition agreement, by which they tolerated the last minority Social Democratic government, they will provide a strong opposition from the right, while the newly reinforced communists will be snapping at the government's heals from the left.