Analysts said “Europe is now on autopilot” after Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek’s minority centre-right government lost a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (24 March). The Czech Republic is the current holder of the rotating six-month EU presidency.
The three-party ruling coalition had held a fragile majority in parliament since its 2007 appointment, and lost by just one vote after defectors from its camp supported the left-wing opposition.
The censure motion was passed by the smallest of margins, winning 101 votes out of 200.
The ousted Czech prime minister tried to give assurances last night that the vote would have no impact on his country’s EU presidency.
“At the moment, this situation has no effect on the role of the president of the European Council,” Topolánek said in a statement issued by the Czech Presidency.
Topolánek had earlier indicated his readiness to resign, although the opposition Social Democrats said his government could stay on until Prague hands over the rotating EU presidency to Sweden on 1 July.
The opposition blamed the government for economic mismanagement and criticised reforms including a flat income tax, fees for doctor visits and budget cuts.
Opposition leader Jiri Paroubek said a government of non-partisan experts could be formed in the summer to lead the country to early polls in the autumn or next spring. Regular polls are due in mid-2010.
Topolánek said early polls should be held in the summer if there was no agreement on a new government. He said he wanted a fresh chance to form a new cabinet and would not support one of experts.
The toppling of Topolánek’s government will not automatically lead to early elections and opens the door for several scenarios.
Under the Czech constitution, early elections can only be called after three failed attempts to form a new government, or if parliament passes a special law to call an early ballot.
The next step is now up to President Václav Klaus, who has increased powers and an indefinite period to nominate a new government.
Given the split parliament, it will be very difficult to form a new cabinet without an agreement of the main rivals, Topolánek’s right-wing Civic Democrats and Paroubek’s Social Democrats.
The Social Democrats lead opinion polls, but their margin over Topolánek’s Civic Democrats (ODS) had narrowed to 4.5 percentage points in a survey released last week.
Other issues affected by the Czech instability could include the government’s long-standing plans to host a US anti-missile radar site, a move opposed by the Social Democrats that had already been put on ice due to a lack of support in parliament.
Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s envoy to NATO, told Vesti-24 channel that those who forced Topolanek’s government to resign were categorically against the deployment of the radar.
“Just before the meeting of our two (Russian and US) presidents in London on April 1 […] the Americans are now facing practically insurmountable difficulties in deploying their strategic anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic,” he said.
In the meantime, a US general accused Moscow of trying to weaken Western institutions.
Addressing the US Senate’s armed forces commission, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Gen. John Craddock predicted a worsening of relations between NATO and Moscow.
“Russia seems determined [to] see Euro-Atlantic security institutions weakened and has shown a readiness to use economic leverage and military force to achieve its aims,” Craddock said.
Topolánek’s ousting precedes a special EU summit with President Barack Obama on April 5 in Prague.
Implications for the Lisbon Treaty
The implications of Tuesday’s vote for the stalled ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the Czech Republic remain unclear.
The Czech Senate has been unable to move on ratifying Lisbon without the accompanying ratification of an agreement with the US to install a radar, part of the anti-missile shield favoured by the previous administration in Washington.
Much is expected from the NATO summit and Obama’s visit to Prague, because the intentions of the new US administration have so far remained unclear, analysts say.
Not a precedent
Governments of EU countries have collapsed while they were holding the Union’s reigns twice before – in 1993 in Denmark and in 1996 in Italy. But this is the first time such an event has struck at a time of major economic crisis, analysts said.
(EURACTIV with Reuters.)