Czech president looks to hijack government crisis

By bne IntelliNews June 24, 2013

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Czech President Milos Zeman hinted heavily on June 23 that he will look to dismiss the coalition's efforts to resurrect its government and appoint a caretaker administration. The move appears a characteristic bid by the head of state to hijack the ongoing crisis to increase his own power base, and makes early elections more likely.

Discussions with party leaders over the route out of the crisis, which saw Petr Necas resign as prime minister last week, started on June 21. The ODS/Top 09 coalition has put forward parliament speaker Miloslava Nemcova as their candidate to lead a new cabinet. However, the power hungry left-leaning president - who has the task of appointing a new administration - has long promised to finish off the centre-right government, which has wobbled for years due to unpopular austerity measures and corruption scandals.

"I am basically clear about that matter and my decision will not disappoint my voters in the presidential election," Zeman said during a broadcast on Czech Radio, according to CTK. During his campaign ahead of the January presidential vote, Zeman displayed posters with the slogan: "Stop the Necas Government." He noted that he's yet to fulfill that promise. "The Necas government though in resignation is still a government," he said.

The president added that he sees a caretaker government as a likely next step, seemingly dashing the hopes of ODS/Top 09 that they will be able to cling onto power until the end of their term in May next year. "There is the option ... which has not been considered much but which I consider to be realistic. That is the option that ... I call a cabinet of experts," Zeman said, according to Reuters.

The president said he is currently mulling four names as candidates to fill the PM's chair. "A sane president... should appoint a respected personality... who doesn't necessarily need a political mandate," Zeman said, according to AFP - a clear slight aimed at the mild-mannered and (before her nomination) little known Nemcova. The president said he will deliver his final decision on June 25.

Only mandate in town

While rejecting the coalition's efforts to rebuild its administration appears undemocratic on the surface, the government lost its majority in parliament last year following several brushes with collapse, and controls just 98 of the 200 seats. Shunting it out of office early is unlikely to provoke much anger amongst an electorate set to devastate the right-wing when they next head to the polls. Powered by harsh austerity measures which many analysts say have helped drop the country into its longest-ever recession, the ODS would win just 8% of in an election a poll revealed on June 21.

However, Zeman's aim is hardly the increase of democracy. The populist president - who, alongside predecessor Vaclav Klaus, has lurked over Czech politics for close to two decades - pledged to increase the powers of his office after he was swept into Prague Castle in the country's first ever direct presidential election in January.

He has spent the months since carrying out a campaign to do just that, hacking away at the vulnerable government at the same time. Meanwhile, he is pushing to use his new post to rebuild his influence within the opposition CSSD - the party he led as PM a decade ago, before falling out with many of the current leadership. With the CSSD a certainty to win the next election, that now looks a more important task than finishing off a government already floored.

"A technocratic government would enhance Zeman's standing within the political system as the only elected representative with a direct mandate," Otilia Simkova, an analyst at Eurasia Group told Bloomberg.

The plan looks certain to spark snap elections. Although Zeman noted that it would take 120 votes to dissolve parliament to kick-start a 60-day process, even the coalition parties would likely support the CSSD's insistence that the country should go to the polls early. According to Reuters, Top 09 has already said it would support a vote in the autumn should Zeman appoint his own people to run the government.

The government crisis was kicked off on June 13 when ministries, banks and houses were raided by hundreds of anti-corruption police. Several people have been charged with abuse of office, while numerous investigations are ongoing into corrupt activities.

The killer blow for the PM came when his close aide - and alleged lover - Jana Nagyova was charged. The head of the PM's office is suspected of involvement in bribing former rebel ODS backbenchers who nearly brought the government to its knees in late 2012 with jobs at state companies. She is also accused of illegally ordering military intelligence to spy on Necas' wife.

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