Czech opposition to call vote of confidence in middle of country's EU presidency

Czech opposition to call vote of confidence in middle of country's EU presidency
With a 22% approval rating, Prime Minister Petr Fiala sits the near bottom of the latest edition of the Global Leader Approval Ratings conducted by Morning Consult Political Intelligence. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera August 26, 2022

Czechia's opposition ANO party of billionaire populist Andrej Babis is to call a vote of confidence against the country's five-party coalition government despite its earlier pledges not to do so while the country holds the EU’s rotating presidency from July-December. 

ANO’s justification for the vote of confidence is the controversial appointment of Petr Mlejnek to head the Czech foreign intelligence agency and the cabinet’s handling of the difficult economy situation caused by the energy crisis.

This may seem like déjà vu to those who remember the last time Czechia held the EU’s rotating presidency in 2009, when the ODS-led cabinet of Mirek Topolanek lost a vote of confidence amid corruption scandals in the middle of the presidency.

Like Topolanek in 2009, Prime Minister Petr Fiala is also struggling with popularity – with a 22% approval rating, the ODS leader sits the near bottom of the latest edition of the Global Leader Approval Ratings conducted by Morning Consult Political Intelligence. 

Minister of Interior Vit Rakusan (Mayors and Independents or STAN party) has been facing criticism from opposition as well as ex-security chiefs for appointing Mlejnek, who admitted he had been in regular contact in the past with Mayors’ sponsor Michal Redl.  In June, Redl was taken into police custody, along with former STAN Deputy Mayor of Prague  Petr Hlubucek and several other officials and businessmen in connection with an alleged kickback scheme involving Prague Transportation Company. 

Several high-ranking representatives of Mayors later resigned from their party posts over their contacts with Redl, including STAN founder Petr Gazdik and MEP Stanislav Polcak. 

Rakusan and Fiala have decided to keep backing Mlejnek, who was called in front of a parliamentary committee on Thursday. Although Pirates party representatives said they still want to talk to their coalition partners over Mlejnek, the new spy chief appeared to emerge unscathed from the parliamentary session.  

Since admitting he had been in contact with Redl, Mlejnek has been under sustained fire from the media, even those not aligned to Babis’ Mafra, one of the two most influential media houses in the country.    

Online politics and business-oriented outlet published an open-source investigation documenting Mlejnek’s private details including his address, bank account and photo, which is available at the website of conservative Cevro private university.  

Rakusan’s and Fiala’s reasons for backing Mlejnek – who according to them was supposed to have played “a positive role” in the police investigation as he advised one of the witnesses to contact police – were contradicted by leaked police protocols published by Seznam Zpravy. When asked by the Czech media, Supreme State Prosecutor Lenka Bradacova also denied having any knowledge of Mlejnek’s role in the police investigation.  

Mlejnek is yet to obtain security clearance from the foreign intelligence agency as he comes to the agency after 10 years in private business, including a stint with IT company Techniserv,  which is also how he was in touch with Redl. 

Mlejnek holds security clearance from the Czech Security Agency and Rakusan said earlier that he will only eject Mlejnek if he does not obtain the “highest security clearance as stipulated by law”, presumably referring to the foreign intelligence scrutiny.   

The centre-right government is also under fierce criticism over its handling of the current cost of living crisis. Opposition parties accuse it of being sluggish and miserly in the way it has reacted to the way  inflation and soaring energy prices are hurting citizens. ANO's support has hit 31.5% according to a recent opinion poll, well ahead of the coalition's leading party, the ODS, at 15.5%. The country will hold municipal and Senate elections next month and a presidential election in January. Babis is also expected to announce his candidacy this autumn for the presidential elections, where he would be almost certain to make the second round run-off, buoyed by the government's woes.

ANO’s push for a vote of confidence is also widely regarded as an effort to divert attention from the scandals surrounding the former premier, whose trial for fraud begins this autumn. Most recently, French media reported that Babis is being probed by the French police over possible tax evasion after the Pandora Papers leak revealed that he purchased luxurious property in the south of France through complex offshore schemes.

Fiala’s coalition has a comfortable majority of 108 in the Chamber of Deputies of 200 and is expected to win the vote. The only time a Czech cabinet has been brought down by a vote of confidence was that of Topolanek during Czechia’s first EU presidency.    

The world leaders approval ratings data were collected from August 17-23, 2022. Of the EU politicians, the highest approval ranking was recorded for Mario Draghi of Italy (54%), who resigned recently, and Magdalena Andersson of Sweden (50%).