>Political deadlock in Prague: Social Democrats play their cards right

> The deadlocked negotiations in Prague after June’s inconclusive elections seem to be approaching some kind of end game. A minority coalition of Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens with an ecologically tinged programmes of tax flattening and welfarereform was quickly agreed, but required the ‘toleration’ of the Social Democrats – now set to be the largest opposition party – order to take office. However, having polled much better than expected in the election, the Social Democrats under tough and truculent outgoing PM Jiří Paroubek, feltlike the real winners. They floated the idea of a caretaker government of experts or a weaker minority government of 1-2 (not three) parties. The idea here was to split the Greens, already publicly divided during the election campaign, giving the Social Democrats (ČSSD) enough extra votes to make a minority Social Democrat-led government propped up by the votes of the Communists (too hardline and nostalgic for one-party rule to be fully ‘coalitionable’) a viable proposition.

When that was turned down they started to discuss if and how the Social Democrats would let the right and the Greens take office. Naturally, any deal was also to be accompanied by a dilution of the coalition’s draft government programme and concessions to the Social Democrats in the allocation parliamentary committee chairmanships and the post of Speaker of the lower house (essentially a party political post in the CR, not a wholly neutral one as in the UK). egotiations so far have got nowhere, despite the centre-right/Green coalition trying quite hard to cut a deal. Successive attempts to elect a speaker and parliamentary officers have also failed preventing the lower house of parliament from doing any business

ODS leader Topolánek has increasingly appeared at loss for political options, floating wild suggestions about a national plebiscite to elect an additional MP to break the log jam and offering the Social Democrats a place in his coalition government, knowing that – given the unhappy experience of the 1998-2002 ‘Opposition Agreement’ which enabled the Social Democrats to operate a minority government with the agreement of ODS – the Social Democrats would not accept it.

Then Social Democrat leader Paroubek finally appeared to slam the door on any prospect of a minority three-party Green/centre-coalition taking office, although a deal to allow a Social Democrat to be elected as speaker is still the subject of intense negotiation. This has become the focus of the political struggle as, if two attempts to form a government fail then the third and final attempt before the dissolution of parliament and early election, then it is the Speaker of the lower house (not the President) who chooses the PM designate charged with froming a government. A Social Democrat speaker, unlike President Klaus, would naturally turn to Paroubek, who might then pull an ace from up his sleeve in the form of a defector or two from the Greens. Indeed, it is rumoured, such a deal might already have secretly done. The Czech constitution, I should say, requires an incoming government to win a vote of confidence in the lower house.

Paroubek’s tough and determined playing of a weak, but not hopeless, hand has won widespread admiration in his own party, adding to his reputation as a political bulldozer and further reinforcing his dominant position. The ČSSD leadership has just given him more power by giving him direct control of the party’s organizational apparatus . Topolánek, by contrast, never the most secure of leaders, is under fire from those in his own party, who always preferred some kind of arrangement with the Social Democrats. The mayor of Prague, Pavel Bém – tipped by the press as a replacement for Topolánek in the event of a bad election result– has just come out for some kind of rerun of the Opposition Agreement as the least bad option.

Topolánek seems to lack the guile and strategic flair to cope with Paroubek. His logical next move would seem to be to up the ante and stick out for early elections, perhaps agreeing some kind of joint electoral list with his two prospective coalition partners as a one-off Alliance for Reform or some such name. This would overcome the bias against smaller parties given the relatively small sized regional election districts used in the CR since 2002. The Social Democrats politically could not ally with the Communists.

No doubt Topolánek now regrets the prominent part he played as leader of the ODS group in the Senate in passing the electoral reform law in 2000, that made the Czech electoral system less proportional that it once was. Under the old system –using six not fourteen electoral districts – he would already be PM heading a stable majority coalition government holding 104 out of 200 seats and legislating for flat taxation, rather than slowly being outmanoeuvred by the wily, hardman of Czech politics, Paroubek.

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