>Summertime special: two Czech prime ministers for the price of one
Getting ready for your summer holidays in the Czech Republic? Perhaps wondering what to take? Sun hat? Sandals? A book? Some hay fever tablets? Good idea. Oh yes and could you perhaps also bring a ‘summer government’ of non-political experts to run the country for next few months. Just while the local politicos pass a quick constitutional law or two and fight it out in early parliamentary elections in October, you understand.
Yes, the main Czech parties have solved the political crisis that followed the collapse of the shaky centre-right minority government by drafting in a team of non-party technocrats to run things from next month until early parliamentary elections in October. Opportunity knocks. You too can be Prime Minister. At least if you are a previously obscure technocrat of a certain age and you haven’t blotted your copybook with any partisan commitments since 1989 (Communist Party membership in 1980s is OK, however: indeed it would tend to emphasize your excellent apolitical technocratic credentials). The interim summertime Prime Minister will therefore be…. Jan Fischer the head of the Czech Statistical Office. Come on down.
Fischer is such a grey but respected technocrat, whose high level political experience seems to be confined to sitting on various government advisory boards and fending off efforts to spin embarrassing figures (Communists I have met are invariably convinced that CSO fiddles the figures for political reasons – I suppose they should know). All other ministers in the new government will be high ranking officials or diplomats. It will take a month for this dream team to assemble, however, so the outgoing Topolánek administration gets a final month for its sadly pathetic swansong., so technically speaking following the formal appointment of Fischer as PM last Thursday the CR has two premiers.
The problem is you see under the Czech constitution dissolving parliament to hold early election is not the straightforward business it should be in a country usually incapable of generating stable majority government. Instead of a quick parliamentary vote or stroke of the presidential pen, officially Czech legislators are supposed to try to form a government three times and have three unsuccessful parliamentary votes and then and only then can the Chamber of Deputies be dissolved. Not surprisingly, as in 1998 the main parties decided to bypass all this and pass a one-off constitutional law bringing elections (scheduled for June 2010) forward to October.
The agreement of a stopgap non-partisan caretaker government was unexpected but is not exactly unfamiliar territory in the CR. Such a “government of officials” (uřednická vláda) is a familiar holding device in Czech politics which date back to 1920s, reflecting a Czech veneration for The Expert (bring in odborník and all discussion ends) A similar caretaker administration under central bank governor Josef Tošovský was formed in 1997 in the wake of the ignominious collapse of an earlier minority right-wing government. Jan Fischer et al get a chance for 15 minutes fame largely the result of a deal between Topolánek and Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek, who, while they may be at each other’s throats politically, still know how to do a deal when they need to.
And why did they need to? Well, for the Social Democrats it’s about showing who’s boss and giving the right a good kicking when they’re down. And for Topolánek it’s about showing who isn’t boss by stitching up a deal: President Klaus. He’s got a deal for stable majority-back government signed and sealed before VK can start playing a more active role and floating prime ministerial nominees and projects of his own.
They say the new government will be non-political and non-partisan, but parties are nominating ministers for specific ministries and there’s a certain whiff of a Grand Coalition in the deal that hasn’t pleased everyone. Having initially signed up for it, the two junior partners in the outgoing coalition, the Greens and Christian Democrats have quickly gone off it. Both parties’ executives quickly threw it out demanding – as had been explicitly not agreed – that the Topolánek government continue until the end of the Czech EU Presidency on 30 June.
Very stateperson-like? After all, this latest domestic denouement does put the kibosh on the Czech Republic’s tottering Presidency of the EU, which still has two months to run. There won’t be any immediate disruption. The Topolánek government continues in a caretaker capacity for another month but is the lamest of lame ducks. And the inexperience and limited shelf life of the caretaker government will finally choke whatever limited capacity the CR once to play a political co-coordinating role at the head of the EU.
Well, no not really, ODS-CSSD collaboration immediately deprives the small parties of power and leverage and given the combined parliamentary and political weight of ODS and CSSD, minor party objections ultimately count for little so lofty concern about the direction of Europe also coincides with self-interest. Christian Democrat deputies are split over whether to back the caretaker government – a ‘blue’ wing of more pragmatic and economically liberal KDU leaders led by outgoing Finance Minister Kalousek are backing it, although these people seem destined one way or another to join ODS. Green leader Martin Bursík, another loyal ally of ODS, also seems to be actively supporting the project, mainly in order Klaus-proof the caretaker government as much as possible the choice ministers.
For, it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. As last man standing, Klaus will play a more prominent role in foreign policy. As well as chairing the forthcoming EU-Russia summit (as agreed earlier – VK is something of Putin fan so no feathers likely to be ruffled there), Klaus may chair the upcoming EU-China summit and the June EU summit, unless Jan Fischer has unexpected chutzpah and cojones The June summit will discuss Ireland’s ratifying the Lisbon Treaty and the EU position for December’s Copenhagen climate conference. As a rampant climate change sceptic/denier and fierce opponent of Lisbon, Klaus will no doubt have some views about how to handle both agendas.
The Czech Senate is, however, likely to vote on the Lisbon Treaty in early May and the Treaty is likely to be narrowly ratified: they need a mere seven (of 36) ODS Senators to join the other pro-Lisbon parties (everyone apart from the Communists) and it will finally be ratified. We know that 4-5 Civic Democrat Senators will definitely vote for the Treaty, so that means that only another 2-3 need to back it (or indeed merely not turn up, lowering the vote for the required majority) and it will go through. Indeed, who know, perhaps some juicy side offer to the Communists from the Social Democrats – who are very keen to show that business in Prague is continuing as usual – may induce a couple of them to leave the building for a while.
The new government won’t have a lot to do. Just (just?) to prepare a budget for next year, revise the existing one in the light of the downturn and implement some anti-crisis measures to keep the Czech economy afloat. Here, interestingly, the caretaker government may provide useful political cover for compromise by the big parties on anti-crisis measures to fight the economic crisis. The National Economic Council set up in January was supposed to play such a consensus building role, but the Social Democrats cold shouldered it, given a distinctly right-wing complexion. After the fall of Topolánek, however, some piecemeal economic measure were surprisingly quickly agreed by ODS and CSSD legislators. Still, their current fall out about the implementation of the previously agreed car scrappage scheme suggests that such compromise may not be that easy to reach, given their ideological differences.