This Week In Europe

Meanwhile in Czechia…

Czechia does not make it among the headlines of EU news very often, but when it does it is usually worth it. This week was particularly significant in Czech politics and society. First, POLITICO Europe shared a short commentary called “Czech Pride” on Wednesday (27th June 2018) informing us that Czechia might be the first post-communist country of Central and Eastern Europe to legalise same-sex marriage.

“I’m proud that the Czech government backed the bill on same-sex marriage. I believe this could be an inspiration for the rest of Europe that doesn’t support such equality,” European Justice and Civil Liberties Commissioner Věra Jourová told Playbook.

On the same day, a new minority cabinet of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was appointed by the Czech president Milos Zeman. After more than eight months since the general elections, Czechia might finally get a government with a vote of confidence, as opposed to the previous ANO-led minority administration, which did not succeed to pass the vote. The new government is composed of the political movement ANO (Association of Dissatisfied Citizens/ALDE) and Czech Social Democrats (S&D), while being supported by the Communist party (GUE/NGL) from outside the government to deliver the necessary 101 votes to secure a majority in the parliament. The vote of confidence confirming the new complicated governmental structure is planned to be held on 11th July 2018, at the same time as the NATO summit in Brussels. For some maybe surprisingly, the traditional and largely unreformed Communist party is still around in Czech politics – unlike other post-Socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe – and will most probably become a crucial third wheel to deliver the remaining eight votes necessary to pass the magical number of 101, of course, for their own benefit and share of power.

The ever complicated mathematics of Czech parliamentary politics counting always to 101 might be confusing, since for most observers, it is not entirely clear what is happening and why after 29 years since the Velvet revolution of 1989, the Communists are back in power. This is illustrated by major opposition in civil society expressed through the biggest anti-government protest movement since 2009, in which thousands of people take part all around the country. Even more so, because the appointment of the Communist-backed cabinet happened on the anniversary of the political assassination of the Social Democrat politician Milada Horakova in 1948, who was the only woman to be sentenced to death by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution. It was the same year that Communists finished their putsch, overthrew the democratically elected government and forced the then Social Democrat party to merge with them.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš attends a parliamentary session to a confidence vote in Czech parliament in Prague. [Martin Divisek/EPA/EFE]
As for the new administration, its head Andrej Babis is generally considered a controversial figure both in Czech politics and society. As one of the wealthiest Czech (and Slovak) businessmen, Babis has been compared to Silvio Berlusconi for his ownership of business and media, which he had to (at least officially) put into a trust fund to avoid a conflict of interest. On top of that, Babiš has been accused of cooperating with the Communist secret service (StB), for which he sued the Slovak state, reminding us of 100 years of Czechoslovak common state- and brotherhood. Finally, Andrej Babiš has been investigated by the Czech police, state prosecutors and even the EU´s investigative body OLAF for the misappropriation of 2 million EUR, possibly misused by one of his companies called Čapí hnízdo (Storks´ Nest) – Imoba, for which he might face up to 10 years in prison.

As such, the coalition negotiations were not easy. The majority of political parties refused to cooperate with the winner of the elections due to the corruption case. Babis even created a minority government of so-called experts composed of members of his own movement ANO and independent figures. Finally, the Czech Social Democrats facing financial problems caused by a lost vote in the last elections (the party dropped from around 23% in 2013 to less than 8% in 2017), decided to enter the coalition talks and trust their previous coalition partner once again. Built on rivalry and a complicated relationship, it took time to finalise the coalition agreement and approve the ministers of the new government. This is exactly, where the last puzzle piece of the new Czech executive lies, since MEP Miroslav Poche (CSSD), who was supposed to hold the post of foreign minister, faced major opposition from the Communist party and the Czech president Milos Zeman. Officially this was based on his opinions differing from the official line of Czech foreign policy (migration, Israel, US), unofficially it was because he endorsed the contender of Milos Zeman before the January 2018 presidential vote. After long discussions, a provisional compromise was found in not naming Poche as a minister, but giving the competence of foreign minister to the head of the Social Democrat party Jan Hamáček, who is currently the interior minister, for the time being. This complicated construction was created, in order to put a Babiš-led cabinet in place. The July vote of confidence will decide, if this is a sustainable solution and if ANO together with the Czech Social Democrats would create a working government delivering on public good for its citizens. The main slogan of ANO “Yes, it will be better!” will be tested against the odds.

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