The Czech coalition failed to resolve a row over a controversial police reform at a crisis meeting on June 15. The standoff appears to leave the government balancing on a knife edge, though a break-up would serve no-one's interests.
A flurry of meetings has taken place in recent days over the sudden announcement of a plan to merge the country's anti-corruption and organised crime police units. However, no progress has been made in getting the coalition between the Social Democrats (CSSD) and partner Ano to step back from the brink, Pavel Belobradek, leader of the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) – the third party in the coalition - told journalists following a crunch summit of party leaders on June 15.
Ano's powerful leader, billionaire finance minister Andrej Babis, insisted at the meeting yet again that he will break up the partnership should Interior Minister Milan Chovanec sign off on the reform plan. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka's only response was reportedly that Ano should submit its notice of leaving the government "in writing".
The two major parties in the Czech government have been bickering since coming to power in January 2014, but the marriage of convenience has proved surprisingly stable, especially considering the interference of President Milos Zeman, a sworn enemy of Sobotka. However, the tension has clearly risen in recent months, as each party has sought to leap opportunistically on any issue to attack each another in a bid to gain increased leverage.
Breaking up the government to head to early elections would be to no one's advantage given polls that show neither of the leading coalition parties would likely command a significant lead. However, the risk has always been that an accusation, smear or simple temper tantrum from one or more of the egos involved could push things over the edge.
That scenario now looks to be closer than ever. The danger that the government could come crashing down is so great that not only the Christian Democrats, but also the police, and even the outspoken and conniving president, are racing around trying to engineer a route to compromise.
It was the sudden announcement of the police reform in early June by Tomas Tuhy, the Czech police president, that sparked the crisis. The plan would create a national bureau by merging the units responsible for organised and economic crime.
Chovanec quickly announced his support. That provoked an instant threat from Babis to leave the coalition – although it wouldn't be the first time he has suggested such a move.
However, the bickering has snowballed. The resignation of Robert Slachta, head of the organised crime unit, pushed the story onto the front pages. That has been followed by claims that the real motivation for the merger is for CSSD to take a firmer grip of the anti-corruption police and either halt ongoing cases or extract information from them.
Babis claims his objection to the plan is that Ano was not consulted, and that such reform should not be approved without the consent of all coalition members. He insists Chovanec should take note of Slachta's protest, and objections voiced by some prosecutors.
The rhetoric has only risen in temper as the argument has evolved in the local press. Babis has accused the CSSD of "secretly preparing amendments" that will compromise ongoing investigations into major corruption cases, although he did not name any particular examples.
The interior minister retorted that the coalition partner is trying to "politicize" the issue. Chovanec insists that the merger was planned by the police authorities, and that they should be allowed to operate independently.
Speculation is running wild over which cases could be the focus of any planned cover-up. Some say the CSSD wants to stomp on any probe into Sobotka's role – as then finance minister - in the 2004 full privatisation of coal miner OKD, which recently declared itself insolvent.
However, at the same time, the CSSD would no doubt love to get its hands on information on the scandals that have enveloped Babis in recent months. The finance minister was hauled before parliament earlier this year over a probe into claims that he secured EU funds for a small resort project fraudulently. Meanwhile, a unit of his conglomerate Agrofert is being investigated for manipulating tenders at Czech Post.
Whether the speculation of a CSSD plot is accurate or not, what is clear is that both parties are desperately seeking to do the other down. While Ano has consistently led polls since the last vote in October 2013, it has never pulled far enough ahead to break away from a partner it clearly finds infuriating. The CSSD is in a similar boat. The frustration is only magnified by the fact that there is little other viable opposition.
It is that imbroglio that has kept the coalition so surprisingly stable for so long, and despite the growing tempers, it has not changed.
Early elections would do no one much good, and the likelihood is that the coalition will find a way to step back from the brink once again, as self-preservation comes to the fore. While Ano and the CSSD can still not pull ahead, the right wing opposition Top 09 and ODS sit close enough to the 5% threshold to enter parliament that they would be very unlikely to agree to go before the electorate much before the next scheduled vote in October 2017.
Indeed, noting the danger, the opposition has been remarkably restrained throughout the latest crisis. Others are clearly calling for cooler heads.
The KDU-CSL, usually happy to stay out of the bickering, is playing an increasingly central role as it tries to find compromise. Belobradek has done his best to agree with practically everyone in recent days, as he has called for delays and time outs.
Following a meeting on June 14 Belobradek announced the police authorities had agreed to wait until August to enact the changes. He was still beavering away the following day. "I think it would be prudent [for Chovanec] to re-examine his signature, as the case seems to be very serious," the KDU-CSL leader warned following the June 15 summit, according to CTK.
Even Zeman appears to be trying to pour oil on the waters. The president met with the party leaders on June 13 to discuss the logjam. The head of state is a wily political operator, and much as he would like to see the back of Sobotka, he clearly sees also that the time is not right.
Babis has been noted to be a regular visitor to the castle in recent weeks, raising speculation that he and Zeman may be teaming up against the PM. The president reportedly counseled Babis to curb his temper, and for the moment remain within the government.