>Czech government falls: Is the curtain also slowly falling for the right?

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It was one of those theatrical, but drawn and deadly boring Czech parliamentary occasions – yet another attempt to vote out the Czech Republic’s minority centre-right government, albeit spiced up by the promise of three dissident deputies from the ruling Civic Democratic Party to vote the government out. I quickly got bored – the government had narrowly survived four such votes of no confidence as patronage and dissident legislators’ reluctance to pull the trigger and bring the curtain down on their own parliamentary careers. I busied myself with the rather more stimulating topic of calculating effective national electoral thresholds and checked the result later that evening.
And, lo and behold, the government actually fell, sunk by the combined votes of side-lined flat tax guru Vlastimil Tlustý and two deputies expelled from ever fractious Green Party, whose inclinations (if we set aside personal animus) were more to the left. Despite – or perhaps because of – a rich tradition of minority government, it’s the first time a Czech government has been unseated by a vote of confidence since 1989 and, if I’m not mistaken, ever in modern Czech history.

What do we expect now? Well for the duration of the Czech EU Presidency and the summer holidays, probably not a lot. The Topolánek government will limp on as a caretaker government, until early elections in autumn or conceivably summer (perhaps to coincide with Euro-elections scheduled for 4-5 June), no doubt accompanied a lot of wrangling with the opposition Social Democrats, who will seek to exercise some influence by trying to insist on a ministerial reshuffle to get rid of some particular betes noires.

If the polls and the results of last year’s regional elections are any guide, the Social Democrats will then sweep back to power and establish some reasonably stable government – possibly including the Christian Democrats, possibly not – but I dare say with the tacit support of the Communists (who might perhaps get to nominate a few independent ministers for their trouble).

And what does it all mean in the longer term when one strips away the War of the Newts style day-to-day politicking? First, it is clear that the fall of the Topolánek government has its roots in split on the right. Second, although the spectacle of deputies in the once well disciplined Civic Democratic parliamentary group breaking away and turning against their own party (more usually a speciality of the Social Democrats) is something of a first, is actually the second time that a minority Civic Democrat-led government has collapsed because of divisions within the right, the first occasion being the unveiling of the party funding scandal and subsequent ‘Sarajevo assassination’ of Václav Klaus by some of his own ministers in November-December 1997. Third the underlying causes are similar: to what extent should the right seek to push a market-oriented reform agenda and to what extent should it refashion its programme around a compromise with social, ecological and civil society building inclinations of various parts of the political centre.

The roots of what happened today can be found in the Pyrrhic victory of the 2006 election when the once enormous poll leads of the right evaporated under a Social Democrat orchestrated by Jiří Paroubek, which showed that too many Czechs had too many doubts about the radical agenda of flat taxes and market-led welfare and health reform that the Civic Democrats had signed up to as ideologically acceptable alternative to the stale euroscepticism of the late Klaus period. Miroslav Topolánek seems belated to have found his way towards a more pragmatic less eurosceptic Scandinavian style conservatism better attuned to Czech realia and in seeing of the rather vapid and flashy challenger of Prague mayor Pavel Bém at last December’s ODS congress to have clearly taken the majority of his party with him. But for all his undoubted guile, skill and survivabilty – and probably through some individual legislator’s miscalculation – his luck has now run own and his period as ODS leader may quite possibly be coming to an end.

Whoever takes over at the head of ODS, the current global crisis means that market liberalism of the kind that ODS has had as its ideological hallmark since its foundation is out of fashion. The Social Democrats can move into the Euro elections and parliamentary elections with a reasonably plausible narrative of pro-EU politics, strong welfare and energetic state intervention as the pillars of anti-crisis package to look after a fearful population. The right will have little to offer except the memory of unrealised Blue Chance reform package, some unpopular charges for health services and a reasonably handled EU Presidency. I guess that does leave a national-populist card to play and I suppose we will in some form see the Charge of the Klaus Brigade (few tears being shed at Prague Castle tonight, I expect), but whatever happens it’s hard to escape the feeling that the influence of the Czech (neo-)liberal right may be starting slowly to slip away.

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