Are you sure?

Czech PM to woo deputies as survival vote looms

  Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said on Monday he would seek support from independent deputies to avoid losing a no-confidence vote on Tuesday, but acknowledged the possibility of defeat and an early election.

Following defections from his camp, the leftist opposition Social Democrats have their best chance to dislodge Topolanek midway through the country’s EU presidency, after several previous failures to topple the minority centre-right cabinet.

Topolanek said he would talk to two rebels expelled from the Green Party, a junior coalition partner, to persuade them not to join the opposition in the vote.

“Any political instability will only deepen uncertainty and concerns, and will hurt the chances of successfully overcoming the consequences of the economic crisis,” he told reporters.

Under the Czech constitution, the government would stay in power even if it loses the vote until a new cabinet is appointed or parties agree on an early parliamentary election, which could take months.

The EU presidency runs until June. But ousting the cabinet would hinder policymaking in a severe economic downturn, threaten efforts to ratify the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and may affect plans to set a euro entry date.

Topolanek said he believed he would win but refused to predict the outcome, acknowledging the possibility of defeat in the finely balanced parliament.

The test for the Czech government comes just days after Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány said he would step down to allow a new cabinet to handle the economic crisis. Governments in Iceland and Latvia have also collapsed.

Riven by infighting and defections, the Czech government appeared wobbly even before the financial crisis, which has triggered a slump in demand for exports. Central bank chief Zdenek Tuma told Monday’s Financial Times the economy may shrink by 2% this year.

Industrial output plunged by 23.3%, year-on-year, in January, but the banking sector has held strong and households are not exposed to foreign currency debt.

“The government has always been weak, and it has survived many of these votes. It is likely to do so again, but the chance that it won’t is significantly higher than at previous votes,” said Jon Levy of Eurasia Group.

He said a government fall would stall the ruling party’s fiscal reforms, already hurt by the government’s minority position, and may complicate a plan to set a euro entry date this November.

TIGHT VOTE

The government has 96 seats in the lower house, following defections by members of Topolanek’s own party as well as the two Green deputies. The opposition has 97, making independent votes key. The opposition needs 101 votes to topple the government.

If the government loses, Topolanek said President Vaclav Klaus should ask him again -- as the head of the strongest party in parliament -- to form a new administration.

Topolanek’s Civic Democrats will not support the formation of a cabinet of unaffiliated experts rather than politicians, as proposed by the opposition, and would rather call an early election. Polls would normally be held in mid-2010.

“In case the government does not win ... tomorrow, and if it is not possible to form a new cabinet without support from the Communists, then the Civic Democrats clearly support the fastest possible way toward an early election, as soon as the summer of this year,” he said.

The opposition has called for an election in the autumn or in the spring of next year. (Reuters)