Sunday, March 11, 2018

Adventures in misgovernment

This Thursday at noon there will be a 30-minute “cautionary strike” by students from several universities in Prague and other Czech cities.
Above all we demand:
1) That the president of the Czech Republic fulfill his constitutional responsibility and names a premier who has support [in parliament] and who isn’t under criminal indictment.
2) That the caretaker government not undertake fundamental or personnel-related steps and that it not create new constitutional arrangements.
3) That the Senate come out strongly against the failure to uphold constitutional traditions.
This takes some unpacking.

The Czech Republic is a parliamentary system. The president has fairly limited powers, but an important one is that he actually entrusts someone with the task of forming a government, much the way Queen Elizabeth does in Britain.

The obvious choice for forming a government is the leader of whichever party has the most seats in parliament. That person puts together a cabinet of ministers to head up the various parts of the executive branch and to serve with him or her as prime minister. The proposed cabinet is then voted on by parliament, and if they get a majority, they are a fully legitimate government.

In countries with several parties, like Czechia, it’s normal for no single party to have a majority in parliament. (There are currently nine different parties in the lower house of parliament. The largest, ANO, has 78 of the 200 seats. Another 3 parties each have more than 20.)

With no party having a majority, the biggest party has to find other parties to join it in a governing coalition. The new cabinet has a few ministers from the smaller coalition members, and the government’s declared program incorporates some issues that are important to those cooperating parties.

If you can put together a coalition of parties that represent a majority in parliament, it’s pretty much automatic that you’ll get a majority of deputies to vote for your government.

These last elections made that hard.

The winning party, ANO, is headed by Andrej Babiš, one of the wealthiest men in post-communist central Europe. He owns media properties, making him sort of a Berlusconi without the bunga-bunga. He owns large amounts of the country’s agricultural land and its food-processing industries. And he has cultivated an image of himself as an anti-politician, a businessman with a can-do attitude who will make common-sense, no-nonsense decisions for the good of the country.

Mr. Babiš is also under criminal indictment for subsidy fraud.

It seems he used some fun with accounting to make one of his properties look on paper as if it were independent, thus qualifying for 50 million Czech crowns worth of EU subsidies that were only supposed to go to small businesses.

The EU figured out what had happened and sent the info to the Czech police, who indicted Mr. Babiš.

Reflecting its leader, the ANO party doesn’t have a clear ideology, so there are in principle various ways they could put together a coalition.

But the “respectable” parties (the leftist Social Democrats, the conservative Civic Democrats, the classic-liberal TOP 09, the traditionally Catholic Christian Democrats – People’s Party) are refusing to support a government headed by a person under criminal indictment.

Babiš says he’s not in politics for himself, but rather for the good of the country. And yet him being the prime minister (rather than someone else from ANO) seems to be a non-negotiable point. So that path to a majority is blocked.

ANO could make a numerically strong coalition with the communists and the SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy), but the party has its own misgivings about those two. The communists are problematic for rather obvious reasons. The SPD is run by Tomio Okamura, a rank opportunist who may or may not believe in bigotry and xenophobia, but certainly plays them up to his political advantage. Back in October, Okamura hosted a summit here in Prague where the guests of honor were two representatives of Western Europe’s xenophobic right wing: Marine Le Pen from France and Geerd Wilders from the Netherlands.

Babiš isn’t exactly a firebrand of tolerance, but he doesn’t seem to be a fan of Okamura’s style of populism.

Also, for all of ANO’s post-ideological pragmatism, it is relatively pro-EU (by Czech standards), and SPD and the communists are the most anti-EU parties in parliament.

So it’s not clear how you make a coalition in that direction either.

The normal course of events after a parliamentary election is that the old government sticks around as a “caretaker” government until the victors of the election can put together a governing coalition. Then you have a vote, the caretaker government moves out, and a new fully legitimate government moves in.

But because of the difficulties described above, no coalition was put together. So in December, six weeks after the election, president Zeman named Babiš prime minister anyway. He asked him to put together a cabinet and gave him several weeks to find the votes in parliament to vote the government into power.

Not being able to find explicit coalition partners, Babiš put together a cabinet made up only of ANO members, a so-called “minority” government.

In mid-January, this cabinet stood for a vote in parliament and failed to get a majority, so they submitted their resignations, but they stayed on as the caretaker government.

Zeman has given Babiš another chance to form a cabinet that can gain a majority in parliament, but it’s not clear what path leads there.

It’s not clear how long Zeman will let Babiš and his cabinet run the show without that majority, but apparently he doesn’t want to “bind” Babiš with a specific deadline and will let him govern indefinitely without a majority in parliament.

In the meantime, Babiš and Co. are doing things that go beyond merely caretaking, such as replacing various high-level bureaucrats.

In some instances, you can make a good argument that the person should be replaced, most clearly in the case of the director of the State Health Institute, who rented for herself one of the institute’s “service apartments” for 960 Kč per month (about $50).

But the newly-appointed people—and the others left in place—know that they owe their positions to current caretaker government.

And these moves seem to be happening with the tacit support of the communists and Okamura’s SPD, which raises concern among people who don’t trust those two parties’ commitment to liberal democracy.

On Friday several non-governmental parties called a special session of parliament to debate a measure that would put explicit limits on what a caretaker government can do, but no such measure was approved.

For his part, Babiš says, “They keep endlessly repeating that we’re a caretaker government, but that’s not true—we’re working.”

So that’s what the students are protesting with their 30-minute strike on Thursday.

They have a parliament that can’t assemble a majority behind a governing coalition.

And they have a president who seems willing to accept that a cabinet not representing a majority of the voters will govern indefinitely, with the tacit support of communists and proto-fascists.

The only definite time point is that parliamentary elections have to be held again in 2021, if they don’t call early elections at some point before that.

In the meantime, they have a premier who’s under criminal indictment and who’s playing footsy with communists and bigots.

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