Sobotka turns to forming government after troubling internal ČSSD revolt

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Normally, party leaders face the boot when they lose elections, not after they win them.czech

But that’s what happened in the Czech Republic, when the center-left Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) narrowly topped the country’s parliamentary elections in late October with just over 20% of the vote.

Though the Social Democrats won the election, they took just 50 out of 200 seats in the Poslanecká sněmovna (the Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Czech parliament, and only nearly edged out a new populist, anti-corruption, business-friendly party, the Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), founded just two years ago by wealth businessman Andrej Babiš.

That left the leader of the Social Democrats, Bohuslav Sobotka, in a difficult position.  The fractured result means that the Social Democrats will have to find at least another 50 deputies in order to govern — and despite the willingness of the Social Democrats to work alongside the Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) for the first time in the post-Soviet era, the 33 seats that the Communists won won’t alone be enough to float a Social Democrat-led government.

But what left his leadership truly in question was a split between two wings of his party, a pro-Sobotka wing that hopes to keep its distance from the Czech Republic’s new president, Miloš Zeman, and a pro-Zeman wing that seeks closer collaboration between the two.  Zeman led the Social Democrats over a decade ago, and he served as Czech prime minister from 1998 to 2002.  A falling-out with the ČSSD leadership in the mid-2000s, however, caused Zeman to quit the Social Democrats and form a new party.

Zeman triumphed in his own right in the January 2013 presidential election — the first such direct election in Czech politics — and has spent the greater part of the year trying to muscle even more power for the Czech presidency at the expense of the parliamentary government.

So almost immediately following the election, Zeman (pictured above, left, with Sobotka) and top members of the pro-Zeman wing of the Social Democrats, including the party’s deputy leader Michal Hašek, held a secret meeting.  That preceded a call for Sobotka to step down as leader on the basis that Sobotka’s personalized, centralized campaign led to a poorer-than-expected result.

The ‘coup’ soon fell apart, though — Hašek and other participants in the secret meeting with Zeman lied about it, Sobotka rallied his supporters  against Zeman’s interference in internal party affairs, Czech overwhelming blamed Hašek for causing political instability and so, for now, Sobotka remains leader and Hašek has stepped down as deputy chair.

Sobotka won a battle, but it’s far from clear that he’ll even be the next prime minister. 

Sobotka’s triumph was a huge loss for Zeman, who had been drawing the Social Democrats ever closer since the beginning of the year.  But it’s the president who ultimately decides who to appoint prime minister, and there’s no guarantee that Zeman will appoint Sobotka, even as Sobotka is working to build a governing coalition in the Chamber of Deputies.  Just as Zeman resisted Sobotka’s initial calls for early elections last year when the center-right government fell — he instead appointed his own prime minister, Zeman’s one-time finance minister Jiří Rusnok — Zeman could also appoint another technocratic prime minister.  (Zeman, who is recuperating from a knee injury, has refused to name a prime minister until December — his remarks that it would be ‘undignified’ to do so while he’s in a wheelchair have drawn censure from the Czech disability community).

Despite Zeman’s schemes, Sobotka faces an even more difficult long-term task in trying to pull together a ‘left-right’ coalition that would pull ANO and another party, the Křesťanská a demokratická unie – Československá strana lidová (KDU–ČSL, Christian Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party), into government.  Together, the Social Democrats and ANO hold 97 seats, and the Christian Democrats would boost the coalition to 111 seats.  But talks, which began this week, could easily stall over the issue of higher corporate taxes — the Social Democrats ran on a platform of raising taxes, while ANO and the Christian Democrats ran on a platform of no tax increases.

A recent church property restitution law is also a key negotiation issue — the Czech parliament passed a law in 2013 that would return property to Czech churches that had been confiscated by previous Soviet-era Communist governments.  In cases where property cannot be returned to Czech churches, the restitution law allows for the government to make payments to those churches.  Coalition negotiations are likely to focus on the amounts of those payments (the Christian Democrats want higher payments, the Social Democrats lower payments), which will be made over a period of 30 years, rather than revisiting the entire property restitution scheme, despite the fact that most Social Democrats opposed the church restitution law.

If the coalition talks fail, Sobotka may once again face pressure from within his own party.  But even if the coalition talks succeed, they would leave the Social Democrats as a minority in their own government, and Babiš would cause an immediate personnel problem for Sobotka.

Babiš says he wouldn’t want to join Sobotka’s cabinet, in part due to his refusal to seek a negative lustration certificate — a 1991 law prohibits collaborators with the former Czechoslovakian secret police (StB) from holding high office.  Though Babiš denies it, the StB lists Babiš, who is originally from Slovakia, as a collaborator with the codename ‘Bures.’  A Slovakian court will rule in January on Babiš’s potential exoneration.

But if Babiš remains outside the cabinet, he could reap the benefits of ANO’s participation in government while also remaining a top opposition figure, biding his time until conditions are favorable for new elections that ANO could win.

The bottom line is that after all of the fragility of Czech government in 2013, don’t expect Sobotka or the next government to bring any great amount of stability back to the Czech Republic — after the previous government’s three-year austerity program designed to trim the Czech budget and a relatively lackluster economy, it’s unclear that Sobotka or any prime minister can marshal enough support for any drastic policy measures.

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