Czechia: a minority administration with big ambitions

On 13 December, Czech President Miloš Zeman formally appointed a minority government led by the billionaire-politician Andrej Babiš, whose ANO movement emerged as the clear winner of parliamentary elections on 20-21 October, gaining 78 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies.

The October elections saw no fewer than nine parties (including ANO) gain representation in the Czech parliament, producing a highly fragmented political landscape with no credible alternative to an ANO-led government: the second largest party, the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS) held only 25 seats

Given ANO’s broadly centrist position, a range of ideologically coherent coalitions should, in principle, have been possible.

Babiš himself indicated that he preferred a two-party coalition with the Civic Democrats, but would be willing to enter government with his partners from the outgoing coalition, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), the small independents grouping STAN or the left-liberal Pirate Party (ČPS), who entered parliament for the first time in October.  He ruled out the Communists, the radical right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping and the liberal, pro-European TOP09, whose (then) leader Miroslav Kalousek was a persistent and forthright critic.

However, it quickly became apparent, that none of these potential partners were willing to enter a led a Babiš-led government.

The road to a minority government

All either ruling a coalition deal with ANO outright or made their potential participation conditional on Babiš remaining outside government until an indictment he faced on charges of EU subsidy fraud was resolved. This condition was unacceptable to ANO, which sees the charges as politically motivated, and is likely to resist any proposal to lift Babiš’s parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

There are were, however, also wider political considerations. Many mainstream politicians Babiš as a dangerous oligarch whose populist instincts, hostility to traditional parties and concentration of economic, political and media power threaten Czech democracy. Being a weak junior partner in an ANO-dominated administration, especially given Babiš’s proven ability to overshadow and outmanoeuvre partners in the 2013-17 government, was also a politically unappealing prospect.

Discussion then shifted to formation of a minority ANO government and the political arrangement that might be necessary for it win a vote of confidence. Previous minority governments, which took office in 1996 and 1998 were facilitated respectively by an understanding that opposition deputies would leave the Chamber during a confidence vote (reducing the level of support needed to win the vote) and a written confidence and supply agreement.

Uncertain to win confidence vote

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Photo: Hynek Moravec CC BY 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Unlike his predecessor Václav Klaus who always insisted that any incoming government had an agreed parliamentary majority in place before he appointed it, president Zeman – a close ally of Andrej Babiš – made clear that he was willing to appoint a Babiš-led-government even if its ability to win a vote of confidence was uncertain.

Zeman also suggested that he would appoint Babiš a second time, should his government fail to win upcoming confidence in January, and that, if a third and final attempt at government formation (when the selection of the prime minister designate is made by the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies – Radek Vondráček of ANO) he would consider exploiting a loophole in the Constitution to leave Babiš in office as a ‘caretaker’ until scheduled elections in 2021. Babiš himself, however, has rejected such a course of action, saying that he would prefer early elections.

The outcome of the confidence vote, which likely to take place on 10 January, shortly before the first round of voting in the Czech presidential election, is currently hard to predict. While ruling them out as coalition partners, ANO deputies appear to have voted in close co-ordination with the Communists and the radical right SPD in the allocation of deputy speaker posts and chairs of parliamentary committees.

ANO also appears willing to offer policy concessions to the two radical parties such as the introduction of a bill introducing referenda, which both favour. However, SPD and KSČM support might extend only to leaving the Chamber, which would still leave the new government needing support from additional parties to be sure of winning a vote of confidence.

 Moreover, ANO also has clear political differences with the two radical outsider parties:  Babiš has consistently ruled out a referendum on Czech EU membership (a major SPD demand) and been in clashed with the Communists over their initial nominee as chair of the parliamentary oversight committee the General Inspectorate of the Security Bodies, Zdeňěk Ondráček. Ondráček served in the communist-era riot police and has admitted beating demonstrators during anti-regime protests in January 1989.

Some Social Democrats and Christian Democrats are calling for a rethink of their parties’ rejection of government co-operation with Babiš as part of broader internal debates following both parties’ poor showing in October elections.  The upcoming presidential elections may be a further complicating factor.

Current polling suggests that Miloš Zeman will be re-elected, but that the presidential election will go to a second run-off round of voting 26-27 January. If defeated, the sometimes Zeman might intervene unpredictably during his remaining weeks in office. If elected, a new president would take office in early March.  However, Zeman’s most likely replacement, the independent candidate Jiří Drahoš has made clear that he does not view ANO as an anti-system party and does not see Babiš’s criminal indictment as an obstacle to his serving as prime minster.

Technocrats and businesspeople

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Photo: Pixabay CC0 1.0

Babiš’s 15-member cabinet (including the prime minister himself) is made up of six ANO party members and nine ministers without formal party affiliation.  This profile is similar to that of ANO ministers in the previous cabinet and, as previously, most new appointees have business or technocratic backgrounds.

Five ministers, who held posts for ANO the preceding government, of whom three continue with the same portfolios and two take new posts:  the outgoing defence minister Martin Stropnický becomes minister of foreign affairs, while Karla Šlechtová becomes defence minister, having previously headed the Ministry of Local Development.

Although Andrej Babiš announced plans to merge and streamline ministries in the vision for 2035 presented before the election, his new government retains the earlier structure of ministries. The only significant changes are the abolition of two ministerial posts without portfolio with briefs for human rights protection and the legislative co-ordination. Two new lower-level government representatives have been creation to promote the development of IT and sport.

The most controversial appointment is that of Lubomír Metnar as interior ministry. A career policeman, Metnar served briefly as deputy minister of the interior in 2013-14.

However, he was also a prominent member of the small, populist Security, Responsibility, Solidarity (BOS) movement formed by ex-police officers and former members of the armed forces in 2017, whose politics are nationalistic, populist and anti-Western.  Metnar himself, however, does not appear to have made any controversial public statements on behalf of the group.

First moves

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Photo: Kancelaria Premiera [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Andrej Babiš has stated that the main priorities of his government will be raising pensions, increasing teachers’ salaries, lowering income tax and VAT, simplifying the tax code, but has also spoken of launching more ambitious changes such as reform of the pension system or digitalisation of the state apparatus. However, he has indicated that, as part of the process of negotiating parliamentary support, he is willing to incorporate other parties’ proposal’s in the programme which he presents to parliament on 10 January.

Although constitutional lawyers have suggested that a newly appointed government should avoid major decisions before winning a vote of confidence, Babiš – encouraged by president Zeman –  has stated that he his government will exercise its full powers from the outset. His ministers have already made an energetic start removing top officials and appointees seen as out of step with the new government and it seems likely that more wide-ranging changes across ministries, state agencies and  state-owned firms will follow.

Babiš is also committed to strengthening the Czech position in the EU and – without making any change in existing policy –  robustly supported the Visegrad states’ refusal to accept the mandatory quotas for the resettlement of refugees at the EU European Council summit of 14-15 December. It remains to be seen whether Babiš will, as he has promised, take a hands-on role in European policy or leave matters to his more diplomatically experienced foreign minister Martin Stropnický.

If, as some Czech analysts suggest, the current government is simply a short-term project to manoeuvre other parties into joining an ANO-led coalition, Mr Babiš is likely to be fully absorbed with domestic politics in the coming weeks.

This post was written for and first posted on the Who Governs Europe blog.

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