A shaky new Czech government

Three central European countries held elections this (northern) autumn: Germany, Austria and Czechia. The first two are still working on putting a government together – we know what it will look like in Austria, although Germany is much more uncertain – but Czechia, the last one to vote, is the first to emerge with a new government.

ANO, the centrist-populist party led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, came first in the election with 78 of the 200 seats. With the remainder split among eight different parties ranged across the ideological spectrum, there was never any possibility that a majority could be formed without ANO. But none of the other parties proved amenable in coalition talks to joining forces with Babiš, so last month he was authorised to try to form a minority government.

That government, consisting entirely of ANO members and independent technocrats, will be sworn in tomorrow. Both the Communists on the far left (with 15 seats) and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) on the far right (22 seats) have signaled that they might be willing to tolerate it for the time being, but that would clearly be an unsatisfactory basis to rely on for long.

President Miloš Zeman has said that if Babiš fails to win a vote of confidence at the first attempt, he will re-appoint him for another try. Given the large plurality that ANO won, there seems little doubt that voters would take revenge on the other parties if they were to force another election rather than give Babiš a chance to govern.

Hence local commentator Jiří Pehe, as interviewed by Radio Prague, remarked that a “first unsuccessful attempt to form a government may be used as a tool to put pressure on other political parties.” The Social Democrats, who lost ground badly in October, might be particularly susceptible to such pressure.

But although Babiš may have Zeman’s support for now, the president is always a wild card in Czech politics. That’s especially so now, since Zeman himself is up for re-election next month, and his victory is by no means assured: opinion polls have given independent Jiří Drahoš a good chance of beating him in the second round.

And while Babiš’s politics are basically centrist (if also somewhat Eurosceptic), Zeman seems to have gone full Trumpist, attending the SPD conference and backing the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Relations with the European Union are at a difficult point, and the country badly needs a government with a clear mandate. But Babiš, or anyone else who might take on the task, looks like having to fight on two fronts, with both a fragmented parliament and a troublemaking president.

Czechia may be in for some interesting times.

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