Upheaval in Prague: Czech government collapses

Ahead of a visit by President Obama, Czechs scramble to get their house in order.

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BERLIN – The ruling coalition government in the Czech Republic lost a confidence vote today in the lower house of Parliament. New elections are now expected to be held this summer.

Regular followers of Czech politics know that the specter of government collapse is never far from reality in this Central European nation of 10 million – the coalition led by Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has faced (and survived) four previous confidence votes since taking power in mid-2006, most recently last December.

What makes Tuesday's collapse significant is that it comes midway through the Czech Republic’s current run as the rotating president of the European Union (EU) (read a recent Monitor story about Prague's role in the EU here). Because of this status, the Czechs will host President Barack Obama during his first state visit to Europe next month. The vote of no confidence means that Czech leaders will be overseeing the EU agenda and diplomacy in the coming months without the support of their own Parliament.

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“If the country cannot show leadership at home, then how is it going to show leadership for the rest of the EU?” asks Jiri Pehe, a former advisor to former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

The upheaval in Prague comes at a time when EU leaders are still wrestling with a response to the global financial crisis and the Czech Republic itself is locked in debate over whether to ratify the Lisbon Treaty – Europe’s answer to a constitution – and move forward with plans to host a component of a United States missile defense shield.

The opposition party in the Czech Republic’s 200-member chamber of deputies, the Social Democratic Party (CSSD), needs 101 votes to topple Mr. Topolánek’s government. The three-party ruling coalition lost by one vote after several members offered their support to left-wing opposition groups.

Topolánek’s ODS has been plagued by defections of late, among the most prominent being that of his chief rival in the party, Vlastimil Tlustý, who told local media on Sunday that he would vote in favor of the Social Democrats. Other ODS defectors, upset with the party’s stance on taxation and the Lisbon Treaty, could join with defectors of the Green party, also a part of the ruling coalition, to tip the balance of power.

“Definitely this time, the government is in its most dangerous position since its start,” Petr Just, a political analyst, told Radio Prague.

Nothing moves quickly in Czech politics, and it could take months for both sides to figure out what to do next, at which time the EU presidency would shift to Sweden (on July 1).Then again, this could be the opening Czech President Vaclav Klaus, an unapologetic euro-skeptic, has been waiting for. He has largely stayed out of the limelight for the first half of the EU presidency. But under the Czech Constitution, he can move to appoint a new prime minister in the event of a government collapse. Mr. Klaus recently renounced his membership in the ODS, which he helped to found in the early 1990s.

“If the government falls, then Klaus becomes the chief player,” Mr. Pehe says. “He has opportunities to use this promote his own interests.”

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