Czech government teeters as president schemes

The combined strength of the prime minister and president may be too much for the leftist minority coalition partner.

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    Huge protests have been held in Prague, calling on Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis to step down over fraud allegations [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press]
    Huge protests have been held in Prague, calling on Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis to step down over fraud allegations [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press]

    Prague, Czech Republic - The Czech coalition government is teetering on the edge of collapse after Prime Minister Andrej Babis declared he would not support a ministerial nomination made by his junior partner, the Social Democrats (CSSD).

    The billionaire leader of the centrist and populist Ano party had originally backed the nomination of Michal Smarda when it was put forward by the left-leaning CSSD in May. However, his reversal brings him into line with President Milos Zeman, who had previously refused to approve the appointment, as required by the constitution.

    Critics claim a "presidential coup" is under way, as Zeman - known for his links to Russia and China and rhetoric targeting migrants, journalists and liberals - seems to be pushing the Czech Republic towards a quasi-presidential political system.

    "It's a dark day for Czech democracy," wrote Eric Tabery, editor of the Respekt weekly.

    Jan Hamacek, CSSD leader and deputy prime minister, has spent months trying to dodge Zeman's provocation to keep his party - which is polling at historic lows - in the government.

    In response to Babis's about-face, Hamacek insisted on "compliance with the coalition agreement and the constitution" - a demand he has issued repeatedly in recent weeks, only to back down.

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    However, the party leader is running out of room for manoeuvre, and the CSSD is riven with internal rivalries.

    "This spat is just the latest in a row of recurring crises that chip away the narrow CSSD support for remaining in the government," said Otilia Dhand, a political risk analyst at advisory firm Teneo.

    Public support also continues to haemorrhage from the party. "The CSSD is looking increasingly foolish because Hamacek has made so many unfulfilled threats to leave the government already," said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University's academic centre in Prague.

    'Hostage'

    Winning the first direct Czech presidential election in 2013, Zeman - a former CSSD prime minister who fell out with the party a decade ago - immediately sought to test the limits of a vaguely worded constitution on his traditionally ceremonial office.

    Blocking the appointment of a newly elected CSSD-led government, he installed a hand-picked administration. The "Lansky coup", as it was labelled, lasted six months.

    In the interim, Zeman has persistently sought to weaken the CSSD. He has also forged links with extremist parties and formed a power-sharing pact with Babis just ahead of the 2017 elections, at which Ano won with 30 percent of the vote.

    'We've had enough': Huge crowds in Prague demand PM Babis quits

    However, the prime minister has been critically weakened in recent weeks. Accusations of conflict of interest regarding EU funds have sparked massive street protests, while a presidential pardon could be the billionaire's last chance to avoid jail should state prosecutors decide to press criminal charges against him in a decade-old fraud case.

    Babis's withdrawal of support for Smarda's nomination saw the Czech press label him the president's "hostage".

    "Babis looks weakened and unable to confront the president," Jakub Michalek, head of the parliamentary grouping of the Pirate Party, the country's second-largest opposition force, told Al Jazeera.

    Babis has dismissed claims that he is beholden to the president as "nonsense", insisting he wants the coalition to continue while promising a "solution" by August 26.

    However, Zeman has already laid out his plans. Should the coalition collapse, the president expects Babis to remain as prime minister in a minority government. That would likely leave him reliant on the far-right SPD and communist KSCM for parliamentary support. The president holds sway within both parties, which seek Czech withdrawals from the EU and NATO.

    Dhand expects Hamacek's survival instincts will keep the CSSD in the government for now, but adds "even if the coalition survives this crisis, tensions will likely reoccur in autumn".

    A decision on the fraud charges against Babis is due this month, as is a final EU report on his conflicts of interest. Protest leaders have promised to rally hundreds of thousands in Prague during November's 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which brought down the country's Soviet leadership.

    Protest leaders admit that pressuring Babis risks strengthening Zeman, but add that they view the prime minister as the weak link in a group of populists assaulting Czech democracy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News