Czech Government Falls

The post-1989 Czechoslovak/Czech governmental system is a parliamentary one, with a (mostly) ceremonial president as head-of-state, and so there occurred yesterday in Prague that system’s occasional occupational hazard: the current government, headed by Premier Mirek Topolánek, was voted out in a vote of no-confidence. Topolánek’s coalition government had always existed with just a bare majority in the Czech chamber of deputies (lower house), made from three different parties, willing to support it, and this time it was apparently the defection of four such deputies from his own ODS party that sealed the government’s fate.

Of course, under ordinary circumstances few of us outside of the Czech Republic would care: the Czechs could just be left alone, as usual, to go forward under the terms of their constitution and find themselves a new government. And indeed, there was no mention of these events in Prague when I checked this morning (Central European Time) at the New York Times, the Times of London, or the Guardian, although the Washington Post did have a report. But these are not normal circumstances, among other reasons because the Czechs currently hold the presidency of the European Union. In fact this is a very bad time for such a thing to happen, for at least two reasons:

  1. Czech competence: The Czechs are not just the EU president, they are that for the first time, as only the second country outside of the 15-nation EU of pre-2004 to take up this role. Slovenia had been the first, back in the first half of 2008, and you can be sure that their efforts to set and shepherd through the EU’s policy agenda over that period consumed an overwhelming portion of the time and resources of that government, as they tried to do the best job that they could.* Then again, every country that undertakes the EU presidency tries to do a good job, and it’s also true that at least every small or smallish member-state called upon to perform that role sees its government’s operations almost completely dominated by it. (Larger states also take a big hit in personnel, time, and other resources, but can afford that more while still getting other governmental things done.)

    There’s no doubt that the same was true for the Czech Republic, but there was an additional edge present motivating Topolánek and his team to try especially hard to make the Czech presidency a success. This weblog covered the subject here shortly after the New Year and thus the transition to the Czech presidency. The previous presidency (2nd half of 2008) was held by the French, you might recall, and at the time there were considerable doubts (mostly voiced by the French, seldom on the record) that the Czechs were up to the job, especially since the economic storms that had start hitting the world starting around September of 2008 (plus other new crises, like the Israeli incursion into Gaza and renewed Russian-Ukrainian bickering over gas that threatened to leave much of Eastern Europe in the cold) seemed to demand an “A-team” EU presidency and not a small, Eastern European country taking up the job for the very first time. Then, a short time after that, French-Czech relations took another serious hit over public statements by French president Nicolas Sarkozy that, in return for extensive financial aid the state was willing to offer, French auto-manufacturers should return their production to France from the other, cheaper EU lands where that was now located – mainly the Czech Republic.

    Thus, while the Economist’s Charlemagne reminds us that this is not the first time that a European government has fallen while it has held the EU presidency, we can see that quite a lot was riding on the Czechs’ performing well during their assigned stint – not just for Mirek Topolánek and his team to show up Nicolas Sarkozy, but also for the sake of all those of us offended by the blatant protectionist measures that the French were trying to get away with, and which the Czech presidency has truly been trying to act against (and not just out of its own self-interest, either). There’s another bit of damage caused by this collapse of the Czech government pointed out in today’s issue of The fleet sheet’s final word, an English-language commentary e-newsletter published straight out of Prague: the Czechs have been laboring mightily lately to get outside observers to realize the many differences in the situations the various Eastern European states find themselves, rather than to just write off the entire area as instable, incompetent, and bound to go bankrupt soon – well, so much for the counter-example of political stability that the Czechs had been trying to build!

  2. That London summit you might have heard about: This next reason why the Czech government’s fall was so unfortunate will be shorter and sweeter. Topolánek’s government makes up the EU presidency and so has gained an admission ticket to an elite world event to which it would not otherwise have been invited: the G20 heads-of-state summit due to happen a week from tomorrow in London! How can the Czechs successfully fulfill their important role there given the tremendous distraction – i.e. fighting for further political survival – they now have to deal with? Even if it is still Mirek Topolánek who shows up in London, just how serious are Barack Obama, Hu Jintao, Vladimir Putin, etc. supposed to take him as a lame-duck caretaker prime minister? Remember that this is not merely the pre-planned iteration of a regularly-scheduled international summit meeting (like the G8), but rather an extraordinary conference called together to produce solutions to very real threats to the world’s current economic well-being and stability! (Oh, and then on April 5, three days later, President Obama travels to Prague for a US-EU summit!)

It’s all a big shame, then, and one aspect of the mystery is why this had to happen now and could not just wait another four months or so, by which time the EU presidency would have safely been passed on to the Swedes. One piece that I like out of coverage in the Czech press is from Martin Weiss in Lidové noviny: Collective breakdown. This newspaper is known to be partial to current Czech president Václav Klaus – he wrote a regular column for it in the past – but not slavishly so, and Weiss’ article presents the entire episode as a low-down, grungy affair. His lede:

The government doesn’t fall every day. When it does come to that, it should play out in great style. Our political representatives unfortunately weren’t capable even of that. The government’s neck was wrung by a collection of people whom we would otherwise have no reason to remember.

The picture Weiss presents in the remainder of his article boils down to this: as described above, ever since assuming office back in August, 2006, the Topolánek government has had to govern with a very thin majority of supporters within the chamber of deputies. It was a situation as if tailor-made to present a steady temptation to the main opposition party (the Social Democrats, or ČSSD, headed by former prime minister Jiří Paroubek) to put forward periodic motions of no-confidence in the government. After all, who knows? The Topolánek governing margin is so thin that, one time or another, such a motion might even gain enough renegade votes from the other side and succeed, and the ČSSD would thereby gain a new opportunity to recapture control of the government. And apparently Paroubek saw another opportunity just now – after failing four times previously with such no-confidence motions – and went for it. The Czech presidency of the EU? Doesn’t matter, this Topolánek is our enemy, we’ve got to get him out of there and get the government back – among other reasons, because it’s only those in government that have access to lucrative kick-back opportunities during privatizations and the awarding of government contracts, but that’s another story we won’t deal with further here – and we’ve got to try to do that at the earliest opportunity when there is a prospect for success, no matter what else might be happening in the wider world. Naturally, the no-confidence vote was by roll-call so that everyone knows perfectly well who the four “renegade” votes came from, it’s just hard (according to Weiss) even at this point to understand just why they did what they did. Only one thing is sure: “principles had nothing to do with it, not even accidentally.”

New Elections Open Their Own Can of Worms

What to do next? Weiss speaks for the Lidové noviny editorial board in advocating early elections as the only solution, an attempt to re-fashion the balace-of-power within the chamber of deputies so that the next government (whoever makes it up, even if it is Topolánek again) might have a chance of governing without having to be on the knife-edge that Topolánek has had to maneuver on for the past three years. Still, that solution raises a couple problems of its own, as are revealed in this fragment of an interview with Topolánek that Lidové noviny publishes elsewhere on it website. (The full interview is available only in the printed version of the newspaper.) For one thing, the earliest that the new elections could happen, even if they started planning for them right now, is in the summer – so probably after the Czechs will have given up the EU presidency anyway!

Secondly, Topolánek also raises in the interview the prospect of the Czech Communist Party gaining increased influence and maybe even participation in the national government as a result of these events. That’s the party whose formal name is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia and which, unlike its other Eastern European counterparts (with the exception of Russia’s Communist Party), is pretty much unreconstructed and unrepentant about what Communism inflicted in this part of the world over a forty-year period in the last century. For one thing, not only does it not like NATO (of course), it also does not like the EU. Having such party actually making up a governing coalition – especially with Václav Klaus, that rabid anti-EU figure, as president at the same time, and with what in that situation would probably also be an outright rejection of the Lisbon Treaty – would really bring Czech relations with the EU into crisis, even to the extent of a possible withdrawal. Yet that is what could happen, either as a result of the new elections which are sure to come sooner or later (and which will inevitably be held within a grim economic context that increases people’s inclination to vote for left-wing protest parties like the Communists), or even as a result of what President Klaus might decide to do in the next few days in reaction to yesterday’s no-confidence vote. After all, it’s now up to him to designate someone to try to put together a government for the period until elections do happen, and he could ignore Topolánek and give Paroubek instead that task – and in that case the ČSSD will almost inevitably have to try to gain Communist Party support!

One final note in passing about the Lisbon Treaty: Another element of the Topolánek government drama was the question of gaining official Czech approval for that successor to the voted-down “EU Constitutional Treaty” of 2005. One important effect of the Lisbon Treaty would be to end this system of six-month rotating national EU presidencies, in favor of a permanent EU president. The Topolánek government seemed to be confident that it could achieve such approval, thus bringing the EU ever-closer (but not completely over the finish-line; there is still the Irish problem) to a new institutional structure in which problems like that which we are seeing here with the Czechs by definition could not arise again. But yesterday’s events seriously set that effort back! Oh yes, and they probably also undermined the prospects of finally getting the treaty with the US for building the anti-missile radar approved by the Czech parliament as well, although as we have discussed here, the Obama administration might ultimately not want to go through with that anyway. But sorry, no more space or time here to go into any of this further right now.

*There seems to be broad agreement that they indeed did a pretty good job – but remember that January – June 2008 was for Europe mostly the calm before the financial storm, so that one can still legitimately wonder if the Slovenes would still have been up to the job if they had had that responsibility in the second half of the year.

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