Friday, July 07, 2006

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Slovaks and Czechs

Folk-dance in suits

Jul 6th 2006 | PRAGUE
From The Economist print edition

Two countries that seem to fight boredom with political bafflement

Fico, socialist with a low credit rating

HARRIED by the secret police, Czechoslovakia's communist-era dissidents used to dream of living in a “boring European country”. In the 16 years of democracy they have now had, politics has rarely been boring, but it is at the moment exceptionally baffling.

The first lot of puzzles is set by Slovakia (which left the former federation in 1993). A big one is why voters last month dumped a government that had become a byword in the region (and the world) for fast reform and economic success. The answer is that booming growth and investment did not quite make up for the government's image as devious, divisive and unsympathetic.

A harder puzzle is to understand the new government that took office this week. At first sight it seems dodgy and unattractive. It is led by Robert Fico, a left-wing populist committed to reversing economic reform. One of his coalition partners is a nationalist party whose attitude to Roma (gypsies) and Hungarians strikes many as racist. The other is run by Vladimir Meciar, the prime minister whose thuggish rule in the 1990s brought international isolation and economic stagnation. Mr Fico's party, Smer, claims to be mainstream socialist. But its choice of coalition allies has brought a rebuke from other European socialists. Some want to expel Smer from their international group.

Mr Fico wants his new government to look reasonable. Neither Mr Meciar, nor the nationalist party leader, Jan Slota, has a formal cabinet position (though the three will form a “coalition council”). Populist promises have been swiftly dumped. Money permitting, says the new finance minister, Jan Pociatek, there may be some tax changes (such as lower VAT on food and household energy). But the government will keep Slovakia's famous flat tax on personal and corporate incomes.

That has partially reassured outsiders and financial markets, which had noted with alarm the weakness of Mr Fico's economic team. Mr Pociatek, a restaurateur known more for his penchant for flashy motorcycles than for his familiarity with public finance, was a particularly unexpected appointment. He says that Slovakia will join the euro in 2009 as planned. But this will require an unlikely degree of budget discipline from a government that plans to splurge on the poor.

The upshot is neither ideal nor disastrous. That contrasts with the puzzle in Prague, where a tied election result on June 3rd has so far produced no upshot at all. A right-wing coalition of conservatives, Christian Democrats and Greens has, in theory, 100 seats in the 200-seat Czech parliament. But this week it could muster only 98 votes in a secret ballot to elect a speaker. Barring an unlikely defection from the left-wing parties, it is thus doomed not to form a government. The outgoing Social Democrat prime minister, Jiri Paroubek, cannot form a government on his own (even with the hardline Communists, who are widely treated as political outcasts). But it seems he can block anybody else.

The resulting manoeuvres are as intricate as a central European folk-dance, but one performed in grey suits, not colourful peasant costumes. Some think that a German-style grand coalition between right and left is now the only sensible outcome. But for that to happen, the leaders on both sides would have to show their supporters that all other options (such as a minority government) had been tried.

A grand coalition may also need different leaders. Mr Paroubek damaged his standing in his own party by a strikingly ill-tempered outburst on election night. The conservative leader, Mirek Topolanek, is also looking shaky. He could yet make way for the popular and powerful mayor of Prague, Pavel Bem, who is a close chum of the Czech president, Vaclav Klaus. Mr Klaus is better known as a stirrer than a peacemaker. But he would like a second term in office. Brokering a deal that gave the Social Democrats a role in government—at least for a year or two—might be a good way to get it.

Copyright © 2006 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved.

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