Prague, 9 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- For the first time since the fall of communism, the Czech parliament is to take tomorrow a vote of confidence in the government. The move was initiated by the cabinet, following personal reshuffles and the announcement of a new economic policy which calls for austerity measures.
The call for a vote of confidence came partly in response to the opposition Social Democratic Party's decision to propose a vote of no-confidence in the government. Under the Constitution, a confidence vote initiated by the government passes if a simple majority of deputies present in the lower chamber vote in the government's favor. A no-confidence vote initiated by the opposition requires an absolute majority of all 200 deputies in the lower chamber (101 votes).
The problems facing the government are both political and economic. The June 1996 parliamentary elections resulted in the narrow defeat of the right-of-center coalition led by Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. The fragmented opposition allowed Klaus to form a minority government. Accustomed over the previous four years to ruling unchallenged by the opposition, the government has found it difficult to find a broad political consensus for its policies.
To complicate matters, the opposition Social Democrats have adopted a highly confrontational political style. After last year's elections, the Czech politics quickly degenerated into constant battles between the opposition and coalition, many of them over trivialities. Major issues, such as completing privatization and reforming the educational, health, and housing sectors, had to be put on hold.
Most analysts agree that the ruling coalition's biggest failing is its inability to communicate with the public and the opposition. But there have also been serious problems within the ruling coalition. The two junior coalition partners of Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS)--the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA)--have found it difficult at times to work with the domineering prime minister and his party.
The constant political bickering has taken its toll. By the end of 1996, opinion polls showed that an increasing number of Czechs were disgusted with politics. The government was unable to respond promptly to the growing number of negative developments, including banking and financial scandals as well as worsening macroeconomic indicators. Strengthened numerically by the expulsion of two Social Democratic deputies from their party, the coalition finally decided to act in April: it announced the austerity measures.
This step failed to produce an improvement, partly because the acknowledgment of past government mistakes was not accompanied by personnel changes. By mid-May, opinion polls showed that the public's confidence in the government declined to an all-time low. Calls for the government's resignation and Klaus's replacement began to intensify.
To make matters worse, currency speculators responded to the growing political and economic malaise by attacking the Czech currency. Although the Central Bank spent some 2-3 billion dollars to defend the crown, it was eventually forced to abolish the 15 percent fluctuation band, paving the way for a significant decline in the crown's value.
It has become clear that the coalition's stabilization program, announced in the wake of the Central Bank's decision, could succeed only if it is actively supported of all coalition parties and at least the tacit support of the trade unions and the opposition. Winning a vote confidence is a prerequisite for seeking such support.
But the coalition appears severely disjointed. Josef Lux, chairman of the Christian (KDU-CSL), has called for Klaus' resignation. Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec, who is also deputy chairman of the ODS, recently attacked the prime minister for allegedly failing to inform the government about a letter from the IMF enumerating what the fund considers to be the Czech Republic's main economic problems. Klaus and Zieleniec later announced they would put up a united front, but the ODS appears to be in disarray. The KDU-CSL has said it will support the government in the confidence vote only if the government approves the stabilization package--which is still only a coalition document--beforehand. It has also urged the government to reconsider the rent and energy hikes announced earlier this year.
Should the government survive the vote (and the parliamentary arithmetic suggests it will), it will almost certainly experience social and political problems when the public begins to feel the impact of the austerity measures.
If the government falls, President Vaclav Havel is likely to give the coalition one more chance to form a government--but most probably without Klaus as premier.
If such a government cannot be put together, the country will head for early elections. According to opinion polls, the elections would result in a victory for the Social Democrats.