Three ministers from Public Affairs (VV), the smallest party in government, have said they will not hand in their resignations despite the party leadership’s threat that all of them would do so immediately— if its coalition partners did not meet VV’s various demands to “regain the lost trust of citizens.”
Following an extraordinary meeting of VV’s top leadership (the “gremium”) on Tuesday, the party gave a list of conditions under which it would stay in government to its coalition partners, the Civic Democrats (ODS) and TOP 09. It said VV ministers’ resignation would become effective as of May 1, if its demands were not fulfilled.
The VV gremium’s vote on whether to remain in government was called over the recent release of a taped telephone conversation between former VV deputy Kristýna Kočí and Minister of Regional Development Kamil Jankovský (VV) in which she claimed to have held negotiations with leading figures of the ODS and TOP 09 about selling her party loyalty.
Kočí had left the VV after claiming to have been offered a bribe by de facto VV leader Vít Bárta — who was stripped of parliamentary immunity and whose trial resumed on Wednesday after a break of several weeks. Party deputy chairman Tomáš Jarolím had insisted the gremium hold a vote about leaving the coalition over what chairman Radek John called an attempted “putsch” to buy its VV deputies’ loyalty.
However, on Tuesday evening John immediately backtracked on threats to quite the government after Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS) and Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek said, in essence, that VV, the smallest party in the coalition, would not be missed if it carried through on its threat.
Kalousek said it would be better to call early elections than cave in to the demands of such a “slimy and disgusting” party as VV and said his party would not allow itself to be blackmailed. Nečas said in a statement later that the moment VV ministers step down “any room for further negotiations with Public Affairs to continue cooperation in the three-party coalition government immediately disappears.”
Nečas also said that the ODS does not fear early elections, which, in the event, should be held before the regional and Senate elections this autumn because the new government would not have time to put together a 2013 budget that brings the deficit to below the 3% of GDP target set by the European Union.
“The government must present a credible budget to Parliament by September 30 and this budget must lead to a deficit of below 3 percent,” Nečas told reporters. “Waiting until autumn would be absolutely irresponsible.” The coalition could in theory continue governing as a minority government but would have a difficult time pushing through the austerity measures to cut the budget deficit.
Dobeš and Peake dissent
Polls show VV would fail to get enough support to return to parliament if elections were held now (they also show the main opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) would easily defeat the ODS). Nečas’ bravado apparently prompted John to try to save face — and buy time — by saying the resignation of VV ministers could wait for a week or more. John said he would keep the signed resignations until the party takes a decision on further steps “based on the pace of negotiations with the prime minister.” ‘I do not intend to deepen the crisis and bring more chaos. Therefore, I decided that neither today nor in the coming days will I tender my resignation from the Czech government.’
Regardless, Transport Minister Pavel Dobeš and Deputy Prime Minister Karolína Peake, who is in charge of the government’s anticorruption strategy, have both said they will not comply with the gremium’s wishes with Jankovský reportedly ready to join them. Dobeš — who will not attend today’s regular Cabinet meeting — told reporters that the resignation of VV ministers would only serve to deepen the crisis in government.
“I do not intend to deepen the crisis and bring more chaos. Therefore, I decided that neither today nor in the coming days will I tender my resignation from the Czech government,” Dobeš told reporters, adding he had not signed any “blank resignation document” and did not intend to do so.
“The one person who can get my resignation is PM Petr Nečas. I call again on my party colleagues to get restore trust and get back to work,” he said. Peake echoed his statement, saying that according to the Constitution the only person she can give her resignation to is the prime minister.
The ruling three-party coalition, which in 2010 won the largest parliamentary majority in the history of the independent Czech Republic, has repeatedly butted heads over measures to cut spending. VV has publically threatened to leave the government on six occasions so far; the government averted a collapse in June 2011 in a dispute over the division of Cabinet posts that had prompted a similar ultimatum from VV.
Commentators in the major Czech dailies said Wednesday that the junior coalition party had yet again miscalculated its power by presenting an ultimatum to its coalition partners. None of the government parties wants early elections now, but it is the VV who is really afraid of them, Lenka Zlámalová wrote in Lidové noviny.
The newly formed VV won 10.9 percent of the vote in 2010 on a pledge to weed out corruption in the political elite, but has been plagued by allegations of corruption, not least of which regarding claims Bárta tried to bribe MPs for their “silence and loyalty.” According to a poll by the STEM agency from Feb. 22 to March 2, VV wouldn’t pass the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.
The timing of the VV’s dramatic extempore was no coincidence, Zlámalová writes, alleging the party needs to foment chaos that would overshadow the ongoing trial of party founder Bárta, a theory also put forth by business daily Hospodářské noviny’s Petr Honzejk, who writes that the ODS also welcomes the government crisis as it will help overshadow the scandal around a secret recording from 2007 showing cronyism and corruption at the ODS-controlled Prague City Hall before 2010. Bárta's trial resumed on Wednesday, a day after the crisis erupted over the regisngation call.
“TOP 09, meanwhile, has nothing to lose. If early elections are held, TOP 09 may ally with the now opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) based on both parties’ pro-EU position, Honzejk writes.
The dissenting stance of ministers Peake, Dobeš and Jankovský have also heightened specualtion that VV could split, with Peake leading a substantial portion of the parliamentary party over to the ODS. This could possibly give Nečas enough votes to remain in power without the need of early elections or the headache of dealing any more with the rump of the VV party.