Czech communists have savored their first taste of power in nearly 30 years after their backing in a parliamentary confidence vote yesterday paved the way for a government headed by Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a scandal-tainted billionaire tycoon, amid vehement protests against their return to the political mainstream.
The 15 lawmakers of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) provided the votes needed to allow a pact formed between Babis’ Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) movement and the Social Democrats to survive its first test, ending nearly nine months of political stalemate that saw the Czech Republic governed by temporary administrations.
The vote — shortly after 1am — followed a marathon debate lasting more than 12 hours in which opposition lawmakers voiced fierce opposition to the idea of a government reliant on communist support and questioned Babis’ fitness to govern in the face of criminal allegations against him.
Protests took place outside the parliament building and one conservative opposition party, Top 09, staged a symbolic walkout.
In the end, 105 lawmakers in the 200-member chamber voted for the new government.
The show of support came after the communists signed a deal with ANO agreeing to “tolerate” the new government, overriding ideological misgivings about Babis’ wealthy status in exchange for having some policy pledges adopted and being given influential roles in public utilities.
Although the party is to formally remain outside the coalition, the agreement marks a return to influence and responsibility for the first time since the 1989 Velvet Revolution that ended the communists’ 41-year rule of the former Czechoslovakia.
Top 09 lawmakers walked out in protest before the vote, while members of the right-wing Christian Democrat party unfurled a banner with a Soviet red star in a sign of enduring anti-communist feeling in the nation.
Demonstrations have been staged in Prague and other cities against the rehabilitation of a party still remembered bitterly for its totalitarian methods and ruthless clampdown on dissent during the Cold War.
“For many people who support right-of-center parties, this is a big moral and psychological problem, because they see it in symbolic terms and feel it’s not right,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University’s campus in Prague and a Czech political analyst.
Babis disregarded such qualms after more moderate parties declined to serve under him because he faces criminal fraud charges over allegations that he falsely obtained 2 million euros (US$2.34 million) of EU funds for his giant agrochemical business a decade ago.
He denies the charges, calling them politically motivated.
Babis was named as a former secret police agent when he worked for a Czechoslovak trading company, a charge he disputes.
He won communist support for his coalition by agreeing to tax church property that had been restored to it after being seized while the party was in power.
However, he has resisted their demands to dilute the Czech Republic’s commitments to NATO, knocking back its demand to cut troop deployments to the Baltic republics and Afghanistan.
Babis’ previous caretaker administration also angered the communists — considered close to the Russian government — by expelling three of Moscow’s diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the poisoning of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia.
“Babis has done all this because he feels he doesn’t have democratic legitimacy and is suspected of not being a true liberal democrat,” Pehe said. “He wants to look pro-Western, pro-NATO and pro-EU, and he’s made it clear to the communists that he’s not going to compromise on that.”
However, his government is certain to maintain a hardline anti-migrant stance after Czech President Milos Zeman refused to accept the Social Democrats’ nominee for foreign minister on the grounds that he was too liberal on immigration.
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