VISEGRAD BLOG: Czech vote of no-confidence could be a cliffhanger

 VISEGRAD BLOG: Czech vote of no-confidence could be a cliffhanger
A Prague escape room puts Babis behind bars as "Agent Bures', his alleged code name while a Communist secret police informer. "Here is where dreams come true." / bne
By Robert Anderson in Prague June 2, 2021

Votes of no-confidence are traditionally just political theatre in Central and Eastern Europe. Desperate opposition parties craving a moment in the political spotlight call a vote every year or so, knowing full well they have no chance of winning. Sometimes the opposition parties are so lulled into complacency by their repeated failures that they are shocked when the vote is actually passed and they don’t know what to do – as when the Czech Social Democrats (CSSD) toppled Mirek Topolanek’s government in 2009, during the country’s turn to be rotating EU president.

But the no-confidence vote in the Czech lower house on June 3 could be a genuine cliffhanger, demonstrating how tightly fought the battle will be at the October general election. The opposition requires 101 votes to oust the minority government of billionaire Andrej Babis’s ANO Party and the CSSD, which has just 92 seats in the 200-member parliament. Up to now the government has relied on a formal agreement with the old Stalinist Communist party, which has 15 seats, to stay in office, but in April the struggling Tankies pulled out of the deal, claiming that the governing parties hadn’t given them the policy goodies they promised.

This spurred the liberal and right-wing opposition parties to call the vote, a move that has whipped up a storm of criticism – and not just from the government – because it is being held while the country is barely emerging from the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown, and when the next general election is only four months away anyway.

The vote seems even more pointless because President Milos Zeman – who has forged a mutual backscratching pact with Babis over the past decade – has consistently insisted that even if the vote passes, he will merely reappoint Babis to be acting premier until the election.

Yet the vote could still be very significant. If it goes through, it will wound Babis and buoy the opposition before the election, adding to the sense of momentum that the opinion polls are already showing.

Or the vote could backfire. There is also a strong possibility that wily old Zeman may be bluffing and he could decide to appoint his own government, which may radically alter the electoral landscape and paradoxically help Babis regain power. This scenario has some analysts warning that the opposition parties are walking into a trap.

Dance of the seven veils

The Czech political scene has been transformed this year because the opposition has finally got its act together and built two strong coalitions that are co-operating to bring Babis down. This was long the demand of the Million Moments protest movement, which held massive demonstrations against Babis in 2019. COVID-19 silenced the protests and its leader’s attempt to found a political party flopped, but it has now had the satisfaction of seeing one of its main goals finally achieved.

The liberal coalition of the Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents (STAN) currently has 28 seats in the lower house and is leading in opinion polls, while the centre-right SPOLU coalition (which includes the Civic Democrats, Christian Democrats and TOP 09) has a total of 40 and is in second place. This means that to pass the motion they will need to gather 33 votes from the remaining 40 opposition MPs to reach 101 votes, meaning virtually all the MPs from the fringe parties, the KSCM and the far-right SPD.

Tomio Okamura’s SPD has said it will support the no-confidence motion but the KSCM is performing the dance of the seven veils, sometimes hinting that it will back the motion, sometimes suggesting that it will walk out the chamber or abstain, either of which would keep Babis in power. Long-standing party leader Vojtech Filip is facing both ways because he is under fierce attack from rivals, who argue that the party’s dismal poll figures are because it has little to show for supporting a capitalist billionaire. According to Filip’s latest interview, he will only reveal his party’s stance just before the vote itself.

Conspiracy theorists – a thriving community here – speculate that the KSCM’s decision to end support for the government might not have just been a sad attempt to regain some credibility. The party could be a pawn in the hands of the country’s chess grandmaster, President Zeman, who has always treated the traditional pariahs of Czech politics with much more respect than most.

Rather than allow Babis to continue in office if the vote of confidence goes through, Zeman may be plotting instead to appoint his own caretaker government – as he did when ODS premier Petr Necas’ government collapsed in June 2013. This would enable him to dominate the country’s politics until the election, despite the waning strength of his traditional allies, the KSCM and the CSSD.

It could also enable the president – a long-time supporter of warmer relations with Russia and potential Russian involvement in the expansion of the Dukovany nuclear power station – to rebuild bilateral relations after the diplomatic crisis in April caused by the exposure of the Kremlin’s alleged involvement in the blowing up of the Vrbetice arms depot in 2014.

Paradoxically, leaving office could actually benefit Babis, as he would be left free to campaign for the next four months, and the opposition might turn their fire on Zeman’s cabinet instead.

“The thing that could change the trend of the past year could be the vote of confidence,” suggests veteran political commentator Jiri Pehe.

Deeper in the hole

Yet it is still more likely that either the vote of no-confidence will narrowly fail, as just enough Communists fail to support it, or that it goes through but Zeman keeps Babis in power.

Either way, Babis will remain on the defensive and will face a tough battle to pass any significant legislation or win re-election, despite his planned splurge in welfare spending. His poll ratings have been sliding for a year and the latest surveys put ANO in third place.

Recent events have put the former fertiliser salesman deeper in the hole. Police have recommended putting him on trial on fraud charges over his application for EU aid for the Storks Nest conference centre, though it remains unlikely that the public prosecutor, who has already rejected charging him once, will actually dare to go through with it.

The EU’s Court of Auditors has also found him to be in a conflict of interest because of his continuing control of his agro-chemical group Agrofert. Babis has kicked this into touch by in effect proving the auditors’ case – by making the government (and Agrofert) challenge the EU’s decision to suspend funding to his conglomerate at the European Court of Justice.

The Vrbetice case could have been painted as a successful operation to root out Russian spies but the government screwed up the diplomatic messaging and few countries joined it in expelling Russian agents. Nevertheless, as usual, Babis escaped most of the blame for the fiasco, leaving hapless CSSD leader and Interior Minister Jan Hamacek as the fall guy after his mysterious planned trip to Moscow.

Running out of scapegoats

Most damagingly, Czechia has the second worst death rate in the world (after Hungary) for deaths from COVID-19 per million people. Babis is now on his fifth health minister after the sacking of Petr Arenberger and has had to reappoint his first one because he has run out of scapegoats. This is hardly ‘running the state like a business’, as Babis promised, unless it is a firm heading for insolvency, as the opposition often charge, pointing at the swelling budget deficit during the pandemic.

The vaccination roll-out and the relaxation of lockdown restrictions have been so slow that it is unlikely that Babis will benefit in time for the election from a ‘bounce’ as the economy revives. The most recent opinion poll put Babis’ ANO Party in third place with 19.4%. The Pirates/STAN coalition would win 27%, with SPOLU on 20.7%.

Both coalitions rule out working with Babis and plan to form a government together. They argue that, regardless of the risks of paving the way for a presidential 'coup', they have a duty to pursue the vote of confidence.

"The proven conflict of interests of Andrej Babis, the [Health Minister Petr] Arenberger case, the trip of Minister Hamacek to Moscow, the failure of our diplomacy in the matter of the Vrbetice case. In the last month alone, there have been many reasons which in a normal country would lead the government to ask for a no-confidence vote itself,” said Vit Rakusan, leader of STAN.

Babis now lacks potential allies because he has gobbled up their voters. His current partner, the Social Democrats, would not make it past the 5% threshold into Parliament and have anyway ruled out working again with the Teflon-coated billionaire.

Joining with both the shrunken KSCM (6.2%) or the rising SPD (13%) would be very controversial and would probably not be enough in any event.

Babis’ best option remains trying to break apart the SPOLU coalition, perhaps by offering to give up the premiership, a possibility that he has already raised. The ODS – the key member of SPOLU – already helped pass ANO’s 2021 budget when the Social Democrats refused to support it. It looks a natural ally for the billionaire businessman in terms of policy, though the gulf in rhetoric remains wide.

Zeman could come to the help of Babis again here by giving him the first chance to form a government after the election, and frustrating opposition attempts to get to work. Yet if the polls are right, the scale of the opposition victory might be such that this gambit will not work, and they may even have the seats to threaten to impeach the president to force him to back down.