The Czechs' new government
Someone in charge, at last
From The Economist print edition
A seven-month political stalemate produces a fragile agreement
MOST of eastern Europe worries about its bad government. The Czech Republic's worry since the summer has been rather different: no functioning government at all. A general election in June produced a tied result, with a putative conservative-green coalition having exactly 100 MPs, and Social Democrat and Communist deputies the same number.
Last week, Mirek Topolanek, the leader of the main conservative party, the Civic Democrats (known by its Czech initials, ODS), squeaked through a confidence vote thanks to the absence of two renegade Social Democrat deputies. What inducements, personal or political, they may have received for this, is a subject of great speculation in the taverns of Prague.
So will Mr Topolanek's government be any good? And will it last? Its members are mostly a dispiritingly grey bunch, with a whiff of sleaze (like most previous Czech governments). But it boasts some stars, such as the foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, a colourful and savvy Hapsburg aristocrat. It mixes those from the “truth and love” camp of the former president and dissident leader, Vaclav Havel, with the more hard-headed followers of his successor, Vaclav Klaus. Though divided on issues such as nuclear power and rights for Roma (gypsies), it seems clear on foreign policy. One early decision was to announce its willingness to provide a base for an American anti-missile radar (though the accompanying missiles will be based elsewhere, probably in Poland). In return, Czechs expect visa-free travel to America.
The pressing question is soggy public finances. Though GDP growth was around 6% last year, a government deficit of 3.7% of GDP in 2006 is likely to rise to 4.1% in 2007, taking the country way beyond the target needed to adopt the euro. Drastic reform of state administration and public services is needed, as well as of the pension system.
The government promises a flat tax, health-care charges and other liberalising moves. But other plans are sketchy, and in any case nothing will happen soon (drafting the laws will take six months). Worse, getting anything radical through parliament will be hard. Milos Melcak and Michal Pohanka, the two Social Democrat deserters, have not promised to back the coalition in future.
So why not call early elections? The ODS and its allies are ahead in the polls. But Mr Topolanek's own position in the party is shaky. An election could give his powerful rivals (who are backed by the abrasive Mr Klaus) a chance to strike.
Another possibility would be cross-party co-operation with the Social Democrats. Lubomir Zaoralek, one of their leading figures and a deputy speaker, says his party is always willing to compromise, but that the ODS is not: “If they behave arrogantly, it won't lead anywhere.”
The Czechs may have ended their humiliating political paralysis. But much deeper reform is needed than this fragile government seems likely to provide.