Can government survive latest coalition crisis?

21-02-2005

The crisis in the ruling coalition came to a head on Saturday after the leader of the Christian Democrats, Miroslav Kalousek, asked Prime Minister Stanislav Gross to step down from office. Mr Gross rejected the call and retaliated with his own call for the three Christian Democrat ministers in the government to leave the government if they no longer have confidence in its chairman.

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross, photo: CTKPrime Minister Stanislav Gross, photo: CTK It all began a couple of weeks ago when the newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes asked the Prime Minister Gross a simple question: "How were you able to make a 1.2 million crown (50,000 US dollars) down payment for your Prague flat in 1999, if you could not have saved that much money from your official salary?" The Prime Minister gave a number of - at times contradictory - explanations, which shook his credibility. Mr Gross found himself in hot water when news broke that his wife too was involved in business transactions that she was having difficulty explaining.

The affair was taken up in parliament, where the centre-right opposition Civic Democrats called onto Mr Gross to clarify his private finances and, last week, the Christian Democrats demanded he did the same from within the government itself. After Mr Gross promised his wife would cease her business activities and he would take up a more standard mortgage to pay for the rest of their flat, the crisis appeared to have died down. But a day later, on Saturday, Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek said the damage had been done and Mr Gross needs to step down from office to save the government:

Christian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek, photo: CTKChristian Democrat leader Miroslav Kalousek, photo: CTK "We want to finish the work that the coalition bound itself to. The success of the coalition and the credibility of the government are threatened by the affairs of the family of the prime minister. This is why we have called onto the prime minister to step down. It is surely possible just as it was possible last summer after the European parliamentary elections when the Social Democrats themselves chose to replace their prime minister. I am convinced that we would be able to do the same operation a second time."

But Mr Gross has no intention of stepping down and backed by his own party, the Social Democrats, has given the Christian Democrat ministers until Wednesday to resign:

"A government team, in which there are members who so strongly distrust the chairman, cannot function. If they won't step down, I will ask the President to remove them from their posts in government."

President Vaclav Klaus and Stanislav Gross, photo: CTKPresident Vaclav Klaus and Stanislav Gross, photo: CTK Just two hours after President Vaclav Klaus returned from an official visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday evening, Mr Gross visited him at Prague Castle to inform him of the coalition crisis. He has taken time off until Wednesday, also to give his own party time to think things over. Prime Minister Gross:

"My party, the Social Democrats, have unanimously rejected the call to have me replaced. But it is only fair that they are given some time to think it over."

It seems unlikely that the Social Democrats will ask their acting chairman to resign as prime minister. And, for now, Mr Gross also has the support of the third coalition partner, the Freedom Union.

"The situation appears to be changing twice a day and we are not going to jump whenever [the leader of the Christian Democrats] Mr Kalousek blows his whistle, which he blows differently every half a day, depending on what foot he got out of bed with that morning!"

Freedom Union Chairman Pavel Nemec, photo: CTKFreedom Union Chairman Pavel Nemec, photo: CTK ...says Freedom Union Chairman, Pavel Nemec. But what does the ordinary Czech citizen make of it all?

"I think the current political situation pictures the typical Czech political culture and I agree that the Czech prime minister should resign now."

"I think it's his problem and it should be treated like that."

"The situation looks this way but because it is politics, I would say that it should be made more clear and away from speculation. I think I possibility is for the prime minister to step down and leave the government the way it is today."

On Monday morning, President Klaus summoned Miroslav Kalousek to Prague castle for an explanation. It appears that the Christian Democrats themselves have been divided over what steps to take next. Mr Kalousek says he wants his party to stay in the coalition but under a new leader. Should the Christian Democrats leave, the Social Democrats would be left with a minority government - one that would depend on the support of the parliamentary party closest to it - the Communists.

Foreign Minister Cyril SvobodaForeign Minister Cyril Svoboda But another group within the Christian Democrats, including Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, does not want the situation to get out of hand.

"The situation is very serious for the Czech Republic, the Government, and the Christian Democrats and there is a real threat of a coalition break-up. It is now up to the highest forum of the Christian Democrats to react at a national party conference," Minister Svoboda told Czech TV, adding that it should be held before Mr Gross' ultimatum on Wednesday.

But can the Christian Democrats do anything to save the coalition or has Prime Minister Gross made up his mind to kick them out of government? I spoke to political commentator Vladimira Dvorakova:

"A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday and I suppose that the Christian Democrats will somehow change their rhetoric and will be more willing to accept a few compromises. There is a probability that the coalition will survive. Fact is that all the Christian Democrat ministers are not very happy with what their party leader, Mr Kalousek said."

How much authority does the president have over the prime minister when it comes to naming a new government or removing ministers from office?

"When it comes to removing ministers from office, the president has almost no chance to influence that. He is obliged to accept the prime minister's proposal. But when it comes to the appointment of new ministers, there is no time limit and he can discuss the question for a long time, ask for more information about the people involved, whether they are competent for the post etc. So, in this way, he has more possibilities to influence the situation but he cannot appoint anyone who the prime minister is against."

Now, it appears that many Social Democrats would like to see the Christian Democrats leave the government. How feasible is a minority government? The coalition as it stands now only has 101 seats of 200 in parliament. If the Christian Democrats leave, and the Freedom Union stay, the new two-party coalition would have a mere 80 seats and would be forced to seek support from other parties to push through every single bill or proposal. Is this at all feasible?

"In Europe there are minority cabinets so it can work. But there would be one problem during the autumn. We can suppose that the problem would be the [approval of] the budget. It is very difficult to come to a compromise over the budget. We can suppose that there will be strong pressure on the Social Democrats to have a strict budget - no social spending and so on - and this could form another crisis. Bus as far as normal laws are concerned, it is not so difficult to pass the legislation through because they are not so political and can be passed by forming different coalitions when the different laws are discussed."

If there were a minority government, what would be the likelihood of the opposition Civic Democrats calling for a vote of no-confidence in the government?

"It is very difficult. They would need the Christian Democrats and the Freedom Union but in any case they would need the Communists. Without the support of the Communists, they cannot get the no-confidence vote."

But no matter how the coalition crisis will end, one question has been lost in all the fighting and infighting. Where did the money for Mr Gross' flat come from?

21-02-2005