Unexpected cabinet resignation announcement throws political scene into disarray

Bohuslav Sobotka, foto: ČTK

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka dropped a veritable bombshell on the Czech political scene on Tuesday in a surprise announcement his government would resign this week. He took the decision over his Deputy Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’ finances, but almost immediately drew fire for sinking what was regarded as a stable government. The decision to resign, above all, puts the next step in the hands of the president.

Bohuslav Sobotka, photo: CTK
On Tuesday, the prime minister took the stunning move to announce his government’s imminent resignation, an apparent principled stand against unexplained and questionable finances on the part of Andrej Babiš, the successful head of the ANO party and the country’s finance minister. Mr Sobotka made clear that there was no way Mr Babiš could remain in the post after failing to explain for months questions over past financial dealings. After last week, most expected the defiant Mr Babiš to be recalled, but faced with the possibility of failure – rejection by the president – the prime minister opted to bring down the government instead. Here’s how Mr Sobotka explained his actions initially:

“If I proposed [Mr Babiš’s] removal from his post, only months ahead of elections, it would have made him a [political] martyr. That is a role for which he has been intensely preparing himself over the last several days.”

The prime minister outlined the conflict of interest and questions over the former businessman’s past purchase of one crown bonds, his tax returns and the suspicious use of European funds for the Stork’s Nest hotel and recreation facility (which belonged to his company) as the main reasons why Mr Babiš could no longer continue. The finance minister hit back saying that Mr Sobotka had managed to sink a successful government, when he should have asked for his resignation. It is widely understood that such a resignation would not be accepted by the head of state. Here is Andrej Babiš responded to the prime minister on Tuesday:

“I really don’t understand. The prime minister, with this one act, destroyed what, in my view, was one of the most successful governments since the Velvet Revolution… in his inability to either accept me or to recall me from my post he is de facto passing the decision to President Zeman.”

Members of the opposition were quick to call the prime minister “a coward” who capitulated instead of fighting, who passed the initiative to the president rather than take a decision himself. Many members of the current government and even the opposition would likely have preferred for the government to have completed its term than the current disarray.

Andrej Babiš, photo: CTK
There are several variants of how the scenario could now play out depending on Mr Zeman. The government could be allowed to complete its term in ‘resignation mode’, the president could name someone of his own liking to form a new interim government to lead the country to early elections, or changes could be agreed for both Mr Sobotka and Mr Babiš both step aside and for someone else to take the helm until the election. Mr Babiš made clear such a solution might be acceptable for him personally if the current foreign minister, Lubomír Zaorálek, took the helm.

A slew of meetings is now on the table with the head of state. Many have noted that Mr Zeman - while obliged by the constitution to accept the cabinet’s resignation – faces no actual deadline to do so. If there are protracted dealings, say pundits, the move by Mr Sobotka could backfire and paradoxically most help the politician he tried to sideline, Andrej Babiš himself. On Wednesday, meanwhile, the situation further intensified with the Social Democrats announcing they would not continue in government with Mr Babiš, while ANO said they would not continue without him. The president’s spokesman confirmed the prime minister will tender the cabinet’s resignation to the president on Thursday afternoon.