Czech government coalition faces sudden collapse

By bne IntelliNews April 4, 2012

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Public Affairs (VV), the junior member in the three-party Czech coalition government, ordered its ministers to hand in their resignation on April 3. The move, should it actually play out, will spark a government collapse and lead to early elections, say senior officials. However, the current coalition has survived several brushes with death before.

The three VV ministers in the cabinet are due to quit at a cabinet meeting on April 4, CTK reports. The resignations will however not take effect until May 1, with VV demanding in the meantime a revision of the coalition agreement and a cabinet reshuffle by April 26.

On the surface, the move is another high stakes bid by VV to force its senior coalition partners - ODS and Top 09 - to compromise on several issues. Chairman Radek John said the key issues are a long dispute amongst Czech state attorneys, a controversial new system of paying out welfare benefits, and the financing of the Lesy CR state-run forest management company.

For the second year running, John is demanding that Prime Minister Petr Necas and his government discuss the key points of the coalition agreement and institute a major reshuffle of the cabinet. The reconstructed government should then put itself in front of a parliamentary vote of confidence, he said. The government comfortably survived a similar vote proposed by the opposition Social Democrats on March 20.

However, VV's wounded pride is clearly an issue. One of its ministers - Minister of Education Josef Dobes - resigned in late March claiming to disagree with government spending cuts. However, most commentators suggest it was a convenient excuse given the huge pressure on Dobes over his failure to coordinate EU funding properly. A new head for the Education Ministry has yet to be appointed.

However, it's the recent emergence - at the trial of former VV leader Vit Barta on charges of corruption within the party - of recordings suggesting ODS and Top 09 took part in preparing a VV party coup last year that has sparked the move, say analysts. VV deputy chairman, Tomas Jarolim, proposed earlier in April that the party leave the government in reaction, and the resignation orders were issued from a VV party meeting called to discuss the suggestion.

Predictably, the senior members of the coalition insist they have no intention of giving in to VV's threats. Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek of Top 09 came out swinging, calling VV a "disgusting... group of amateurs" and suggesting corruption amongst its members. He said his party is not going to accept "blackmail", and suggested that early elections would be "the most honest solution" if the VV ministers resign.

Necas also rejected VV's "ultimatums," despite the fact that in a snap vote his ODS party would face an electorate unhappy with continued pressure to consolidate the budget. Unions called a week of protests against austerity measures on April 3. Recent polls have the Social Democrats as the most popular party currently, whilst Necas has fallen even further behind Top 09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg in polls measuring trust in politicians.

Necas is brazening it out, though. "If the developments result in the government's disintegration, I am not afraid of quick early elections," he claimed. "I'd consider it the most responsible solution for our country." Instead, the PM suggested any vote should take place as soon as possible in order to allow a new government to put together a 2013 budget. Failure to achieve that, "would pose an immense threat to the country's stability," he insisted.

Yet, as Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg pointed out, it's VV that appears most at risk from going to a vote, given that the party would struggle to cross the 5% threshold according to recent polls. "My thesis that in the Czech Republic political parties do not end by a crushing defeat but by suicide has proved true," Schwarzenberg told CTK. "The VV has decided to jump out of the plane without a parachute, so good luck."

Kalousek told the newswire that Top 09 will now coordinate its steps with ODS, adding that he also sees elections as soon as possible as the best solution should talks with VV fail. Kalousek nevertheless indicated that the two senior parties remain open to negotiation, despite the fact that the scandal hit VV caused a similar panic by demanding a revision of the coalition agreement last spring. The crisis lasted nearly three months.

However, Schwarzenberg suggested that "a horrible end is preferable to endless horror." ODS and Top 09 have only just seen their relations calm following a slew of personal insults slung between Necas and Schwarzenberg in the wake of Necas' decision to pull the Czech Republic out of the Eurozone's fiscal compact.

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