Another lease of life
Thursday, 08 November 2012 13:05

THE Czech Republic's rickety government warded off a potentially fatal assault from its own ranks. But expect little stability in the long run. The three-party, centre-right cabinet survived a confidence vote on November 7th but its majority in parliament remains feeble.

The fate of Petr Nečas's cabinet was in the hands of renegade lawmakers from the prime minister’s ruling Civic Democratic Party, also known as ODS. The six men (one of whom left the party recently) demanded that the government gives up its plan of raising taxes in order to meet Brussels' budgetary criteria and keep the state's borrowing costs low. They had insisted on killing the disputed bill. Mr Nečas (pictured on the left) decided to have a vote of confidence about the controversial tax hikes.

On the eve of the vote on the new taxes, the five rebels remaining within ODS dramatically changed the course. Two said that they will support the bill  to avoid handing power to the Communists. (The logic is that the cabinet's collapse could be followed by an early election that would likely result in a leftist cabinet.)

More surprisingly yet, three remaining rebels announced that they will resign from parliament. They said that they could neither back higher taxes nor topple the government. The trio (whose motivations for the uprising have been questioned) resigned the following morning. They were promptly replaced by the next-in-line ODS candidates who did not make it to parliament in the 2010 election. All three supported the contentious bill, which passed the lower house in a 101-93 vote.

The opposition now hopes to veto the legislation in the Senate and return it to the 200-strong house where the cabinet would have to muster 101 votes in its favour once again. More delays ahead and passing the 2013 budget by the year's end looks increasingly tough.

The U-turn followed last-ditch talks between the defectors and Martin Kuba (pictured on the right), Mr Nečas's new first deputy in the party. And it promptly raised questions of what promises of secret rewards the rebels may have received. There is no question about the fact that the rebels failed to garner greater support for their cause at the party congress last weekend. They neither unseated Mr Nečas from the ODS helm nor made it to the party's wider leadership.

The rebellion has further weakened the government, which started out with 118 votes and was backed by 105 lawmakers in the last confidence vote in April. But Mr Nečas and his team are likely to hang in there as long as there are enough lawmakers who prefer clinging to their jobs to a certain loss in an early election. Aside from the three ODS newcomers, the coalition was helped by three independents. They were elected on the ticket of the populist Public Affairs, a former junior governing party that left the ruling coalition after it split amid its own internal rift. The party has a minuscule chance to return to parliament in a future poll.

The numbers are so tight though that the cabinet will likely be lforced to negotiate ad hoc coalitions to pass its key legislation in the future. After winning the confidence vote in early afternoon, the ruling coalition seized on the moment and went on a legislative spree lasting through the night. The coalition lawmakers managed to overturn two presidential vetoes, for which 101 votes were needed. One law introduces voluntary private retirement-savings funds in 2013; the other places abandoned children (or children taken into state custody) in foster families rather than in institutional care. The house also reversed a Senate veto of a highly-unpopular church restitution bill.

The cabinet escaped collapse but its reputation (and the reputation of the Civic Democrats) received yet another blow in the process. Even though this is a cabinet that vowed to battle corruption one of the new arrivals who helped it survive was sentenced to six years in prison for requesting a bribe. An appeal to a higher court is pending. The novice legislator claims innocence and says that he has no intention to give up his mandate voluntarily. If the house does not vote to expel him, he will be protected by parliamentary immunity. "It shows what that party [ODS] looks like. It shows that it is deeply rotten," Martin Fendrych, a columnist with the Týden weekly, told Czech Television.

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