Intensive formal negotiations among party leaders took place from Monday through Thursday; Prime Minister Petr Nečas (right) also met discretely with Public Affairs’ head Radek John (left) and his ‘superguru’ Vít Bárta (center)
“I prefer a gruesome end to endless horror,” TOP 09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the Czech Foreign Minister, said earlier in the week following an unfruitful session of the so-called K9 — the leaders of the three coalition parties, TOP 09, the senior Civic Democrats (ODS), and Public Affairs (VV) — to agree on the shape of the government and its way forward.
Schwarzenberg’s party then declared it would not continue in the discussions about amending the coalition agreement or a Cabinet shake-up, leaving it to Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS) to deal with VV, which had issued an ultimatum: It would quit the government on Friday if not given two more Cabinet posts and changes in various in program areas and budget allocations — including guaranteed spending levels — were not made. In the original coalition agreement, VV was allotted four Cabinet posts.
Monday’s papers had been full of headlines declaring the end of the three-party coalition government was nigh. The conflict was indeed bitter, and Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek (TOP 09) hit back hard, but the “gruesome end” of which Schwarzenberg spoke didn’t occur. Without the participation of TOP 09, intensive negotiations between ODS and VV leaders took place from Monday through Thursday alongside separate talks between Nečas and VV leaders. The result was an amendment to the coalition agreement, signed by the party leaders on June 30.
The draft state budget prepared by the Finance Ministry now can go to other ministries for expert comment, with the Cabinet due to submit the definitive version to the lower house of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) by Sept. 30, i.e. within three months. (It would be highly irregular if not unconstitutional if the Finance Ministry would work on a draft law about the state budget without presenting it to the K9 first.)
In the coalition agreement from last year, the three parties had decided on how to settle differences of opinion and policy. And the document VV handed to its coalition partners in April — which, unfortunately, was not made public — aims to reach an amicable agreement. The party of ex-Interior Minister Radek John and ex-Transport Minister Vít Bárta, the nominal and de facto VV chairmen, respectively, drew the document up with the aim of securing more Cabinet posts.
If VV truly asked for conciliation, why did it include policy questions in the K9 meeting although competency for such things was given to the coalition counsel (even if the 20-member board has in fact never mattered)? And since the coalition agreement sets no time limit for reconciliation, what was the point of VV’s ultimatum of midnight (“H-hour”) on June 30 (“D-Day”)?
It was President Václav Klaus, who a few days before June 30 declared that this time around there was no “coalition crisis” as the one that threatened to dissolve the government in December. Given the speed with which he accepted the resignation of Radek Šmerda, the acting transport minister, one could hope that a happy ending was not far away.
That hope turned to reality after VV’s John announced that his party will have four seats in the government (and although party vice chairman Karolína Peake cautioned that the K9 meeting had yet to confirm this, it came to pass). After the meeting, John and Peake also announced a number of concessions the VV had won, including higher taxes on the gambling industry and measures to increase transparency in the financing of political parties — ironic, we might add, in the wake of the “cash for loyalty” scandal.
Meanwhile, the tax reforms agreed thus far will not reduce the burden on the rank-and-file of labor unions — whose interests, we might add, VV has pledged to defend so as to limit the impact of the center-right government’s “anti-social” reforms, as self-appointed “superguru” Vít Bárta put it.
Above all, however, VV negotiated something for the party itself: four Cabinet-level posts, including one for Peake as a deputy prime minister and chairwoman of the legislative council that will coordinate the battle against corruption (important for the party since John’s exit as Interior Minister and, briefly, as the government’s “anti-corruption czar.” Perhaps it was a sign of the strength of Peake and party loyalists’ competency that Pavel Dobeš, who is loyal to Bárta, was named Transport Minister.
Meanwhile, the presence of Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra (ODS) and Finance Minister Kalousek (TOP 09) in government no longer seems to be a problem for VV: If they can also get a few seats on the supervisory boards of state-owned companies perhaps the smallest coalition party’s appetite will be satiated. Prime Minister Nečas, who seemed to find solid ground under his feet, joked during a press briefing that the K9 had also agreed not to meet for at least another six to eight weeks — a great idea!
However, perhaps the K9 will have occasion to meet in the next eight weeks, as July 12 brings an extraordinary meeting of parliament and over the summer the ministers most likely will be battling over billions of crowns in budgetary allocations for their ministries against the background of modest economic growth. At least after quite some time a woman is in the Cabinet; perhaps Peake can tame her colleagues a bit so they are somewhat more likable. The government needs this like a bee needs as flower.