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Czech PM Faces Tough Test In No-Confidence Vote

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek
PRAGUE (Reuters) -- Czech opposition Social Democrats have their best chance yet of toppling Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's minority center-right administration, midway through the country's EU Presidency.

Ousting the three-party cabinet in the March 24 no-confidence vote, made more likely by defections from Topolanek's camp, would jeopardize policymaking in a severe economic downturn and threaten efforts to ratify the EU's Lisbon treaty.

Even if forced out by an opposition victory, Topolanek's team, long hampered by its weak standing in parliament, would stay in power until politicians hammer out what to do next, which could take weeks or months.

Topolanek plans to seek a new mandate from President Vaclav Klaus if the cabinet falls, but did not rule out early polls.

"In case the government does not win...tomorrow, and if it is not possible to form a new cabinet without support from the Communists, then the Civic Democrats clearly support the fastest possible way toward an early election, as soon as the summer of this year," Topolanek told reporters on March 23.

Social Democrat leader Jiri Paroubek said he wanted the cabinet to stay on, even after resignation, until June to avoid changing the team during the country's EU term.

He said a government of nonpartisan experts should then take over and lead the country toward an early election in the autumn or next spring. Regular polls are due in mid-2010.

The lower house is due to start a session at 2 p.m. local time (1300 GMT), with a lengthy debate expected ahead of the actual vote. Topolanek canceled a meeting with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

Even Chances

Political analyst Jiri Pehe said he saw even chances for both camps, but added that the key independent deputies may be discouraged by the outlook for an early election which would cut short their mandate.

The Social Democrats lead opinion polls but their margin over the Civic Democrats has narrowed to 4.5 percentage points in the latest survey released last week.

The Czech vote comes just days after Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany said he would step down and after governments fell in Iceland and Latvia under the strain of the economic crisis.

While the Czech political turmoil is not as directly related to the crisis, the economy has suffered from a slump in exports, and figures out on March 23 showed industrial output fell by 23.3 percent in January.

But the crown currency has recovered from a drop seen earlier this year, banks have held strong, the public has been calm and Czechs are not heavily exposed to foreign debt.

The cabinet has suffered instead from factional infighting since it was appointed in January 2007.