Czech govt reshuffle causes rift as EU term starts

A plan by the Czech prime minister to reshuffle his cabinet threatened to weaken the minority government still further on Tuesday.

Czech govt reshuffle causes rift as EU term starts

A plan by the Czech prime minister to reshuffle his cabinet threatened to weaken the minority government still further on Tuesday, days after the country took over the European Union presidency.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said he wanted to replace unpopular Deputy Prime Minister Jiri Cunek, head of the junior coalition Christian Democrats, following a crushing defeat in October regional and Senate elections.

The Christian Democrats backed Cunek on Tuesday and called for the dismissal instead of Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, a Christian Democrat and a close ally of Topolanek.

"I put forward a proposal for ... the departure of Jiri Cunek," Topolanek told a news conference. "I hope the Christian Democrats will sort this out, and will not remove ... a minister considered to be the best finance minister of this region."

Kalousek has overseen both a reduction in personal income taxes and a cut in the budget deficit to below plan last year.

Topolanek aims to give the cabinet a facelift after his three-party coalition was trounced by the leftist opposition in the October votes and was weakened by defections in parliament.

Those woes have not helped ease worry among some European leaders over the Czechs' ability to lead as EU president as the Union grapples with an economic crisis, a gas supply row between Ukraine and Russia, and the renewed conflict in Gaza.

The reshuffle, already delayed several times by protracted talks, is not expected to involve the EU affairs or foreign portfolios held by Alexandr Vondra and Karel Schwarzenberg, the key players in the Czechs' six-month stint at the EU's helm.

Final decision

Cunek said a final decision on Kalousek would be made by wider party leadership bodies on Friday. He confirmed reports that the main candidate for finance minister was 31-year old Tomas Sedlacek, an unaffiliated economist at bank CSOB.

Topolanek has the sole legal right to nominate ministers but is bound politically to seek approval of coalition partners. He said he did not see the row toppling the cabinet although the Christian Democrats may quit the coalition.

The departure of a coalition partner would weaken the cabinet further but not immediately topple it unless the party sides with the opposition in a no-confidence vote.

"I may be worried this could lead to the Christian Democrats' departure from the cabinet. That is a threat for any ... government," Topolanek said, but added:

"I am not worried that it would lead to a government collapse at this point."

Political analyst Josef Mlejnek Jr. said Topolanek was unlikely to risk the fall of the cabinet.

"He would lose face if he let Kalousek go and kept Cunek, but it is possible this will be his only choice," he said.

The government has just 96 seats in the 200-strong lower house, and has had to rely on several independents, including government parliamentarian defectors, to push through legislation and survive repeated no-confidence motions.

A successful no-confidence vote in the cabinet would not necessarily lead directly to an early election but rather to talks on a new formation. During that period, which could take months, the government would stay in office with full powers.

The next election is due in mid-2010.

Reuters
Last Mod: 07 Ocak 2009, 15:17
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