The second round of talks on forming a new government since parliamentary elections ended in stalemate half a year ago, saw unexpected developments on Monday when Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek announced his party was dropping a demand for early elections next year. Until now, the right-of-centre Civic Democrats, who won the election in June but where unable to secure a governing majority, had pushed for early elections as the only viable option. Why the reversal in position?
Most observers said all along that eventually they'd have to agree, that any solution to the on-going political stalemate could only be found through negotiation by the country's two largest political parties: the Civic and the Social Democrats. For the first time in months, some kind of agreement may be on the horizon: on Monday Prime Minister Topolanek dropped the staunchly-defended prerequisite that any new government rule only until early elections in 2007. That's now changed: at a joint press conference with the Social Democrats' Jiri Paroubek on Monday the prime minister said that "the idea of early elections" had "failed" and indicated that what was needed was a new more long-term solution. The Civic Democrats would like to form a cabinet that would govern for three years. Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek:
"We would like to reach agreement on a government that would have a mandate longer than next year - until 2009, so that it could tackle concrete issues, above all the country's holding of the EU presidency in 2009. If our concept finds backing we think an agreement could be reached within fourteen days."
But, what kind of government might it be? The Civic Democrats are backing the idea of a "rainbow coalition" of four parties including the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and the Greens, excluding only the communists. This seems to be an acceptable compromise for Mr Topolanek, but it is unclear that it will find backing among everyone, particularly the Greens. On Monday they already indicated opposition to anything other than an interim government ruling at the latest until 2008.
Until now the Social Democrats had pushed for some kind of agreement between the two largest parties - either a tolerance pact or a so-called "grand" coalition, and even if they have backed away from those demands, they will still want strong concessions on the programme and make-up of any new government. For now, much is up in the air, nothing is decided yet. Civic Democrat negotiator Petr Tluchor:
"The date for the [next] election is one of the issues that is a matter for discussion in additional negotiations, but first we have to agree that we want to agree. I hope that that is what's going on now. If we do reach an agreement we have to decide on who will be in government, who will fill ministerial posts, and then of course, how long a mandate the government will be given."
Many hours of talks with the Social Democrats but also the two smaller parties, the Christian Democrats and the Greens, now lie ahead - and like in the first round of talks - it could all come to nought. Unlike the first round though, there is now arguably far greater pressure than before that the country needs a solution. A recent poll suggested that 80 percent of voters are unhappy with the continuing stalemate, while observers have pointed to increasing danger: that the longer the crisis continues, the greater the potential for negative political and economic impact.
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