Czech Republic struggling to build new government


Mon, Dec 11, 2006 - Page 6

It was St Nicholas Day, Wednesday, and Mirek Topolanek, the Czech Republic's prime minister, was on his way to see the president for his lump of coal.

For six long months, the Czech Republic has waited with increasing impatience for Topolanek to form a government that can win a vote of confidence from a parliament perfectly split along partisan lines.

He had promised President Vaclav Klaus that he would present a winning Cabinet by the holiday, when St Nicholas and the Devil make their rounds to distribute candy to the good children and coal to the bad.

But he had no Cabinet ready.

"Next week," Topolanek said with exasperation before leaving his office in the town's parliament building.

The combination of a backstabbing political culture and a parliamentary system that provides no tie-breaker in the case of an evenly divided legislature has left the country on autopilot since national elections in June.

"You would expect, after six months with no stable government, that the politicians would talk about the country, but they only talk about strategic moves and how to get more votes," said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst.

The problem began as parliamentary campaigning for national elections came down to the wire in June.

The left-wing Czech Social Democratic Party, which had led a governing coalition for the previous eight years, looked as if it could win again.

Then, four days before the voting, a police report packed with allegations about the party was leaked to the news media.

None of the claims, from pedophilia to murder, have proved true, but the report dominated front pages.

Topolanek's center-right Civic Democratic Party swept the election, winning 81 of parliament's 200 seats and leaving the Social Democrats with 74.

The ruckus over the report left both sides bruised and angry. Topolanek's Civic Democrats huddled in his corner with two allied parties, vowing never to form a coalition with the Social Democrats. The Social Democrats, for their part, closed ranks with the Communists, and promised to block any government they weren't part of.

Each camp had 100 seats on its side, setting up the stalemate that continues to this day.

The departing Social Democratic Party prime minister, Jiri Paroubek sat in his office for months waiting for Topolanek to form a new government.

Topolanek finally did so in September, allowing him to take Paroubek's place and install ministers of his own.

But his government could not win the necessary parliamentary vote of confidence required for it to stay.

Klaus sent Topolanek back to the drawing board.

In the meantime, the country waits.

The Czech Republic's mostly privatized economy is continuing to do well: the economy is growing, unemployment is falling, and inflation is under control.

But many people worry that the long pause in government action, particularly on badly needed health care and pension reforms, will hurt the economy later on.

The delay could mean that the country will not be able to reduce its budget deficit to the required 3 percent in time to adopt the euro by 2010.

Topolanek's progress has been slowed by a series of party congresses promising to alter the political map enough to color his options.

Though Topolanek missed his self-imposed deadline, the Social Democrats have given him another: He has until Friday to negotiate their participation in a government.

After that, Paroubek said, Topolanek can form a government on his own and risk another parliamentary no-confidence vote.

If Topolanek's next attempt at forming a government fails, the speaker of the Czech parliament's lower chamber -- not the president -- will appoint a new prime minister for a third try.

The speaker is now a Social Democrat and while he has agreed to step down, electing a new speaker will itself be a challenge with a divided parliament.

Were a third government to fail a vote of confidence, the president would call new elections.