New Czech Government: The Big Ones Go to the Small Ones

Why has new PM Petr Nečas given so many key ministries to junior coalition partners?

The incoming Czech government has finally taken shape and the unveiling of the Cabinet team this week took the domestic media by surprise. Since this will be the government with the strongest support in parliament's lower house in the modern history of the Czech Republic -- and therefore has the highest chance of surviving its whole four-year mandate and undertaking some painful reforms -- English-speakers might find it useful to know why it was greeted with such surprise. So here's a brief guide to the country's future rulers.

The new prime minister is Petr Nečas of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which became the strongest right-of-center party in May's parliamentary elections. He initially said he would form a reform-minded coalition government, since an overhaul of public finances is his top priority and the most pressing issue facing the country. Because of that, he added, his party would be very reluctant to give up control of the Finance Ministry.

The actual distribution of government portfolios has been somewhat different, however. The finance minister is to be Miroslav Kalousek, deputy chairman of TOP 09, the larger of the ODS's two coalition partners. The social affairs ministry and the healthcare portfolio will also be in TOP 09 hands, meaning that all the most painful reforms -- public expenditure, welfare payments, etc. -- would be overseen by a minor coalition partner.

From an apolitical point of view, it's a logical decision: If you want reform, it's best to carry it out in a cooperative rather than competitive environment. But ODS members and Czech political commentators have begun to ask what kind of message this division of power sends out. Has Nečas given up these strongholds of government because only 3.5 percentage points divided the ODS and TOP 09 shares of the vote, leaving him with little room for negotiation?

Or has the new prime minister decided that as TOP 09 has been promising voters the most austere approach to public expenditure, they should be the ones to face the consequences in October's local and Senate elections, when/if Czechs make their displeasure known at the ballot box? If the latter is the case, what if the reforms go down well with right-wing voters? (Left-wingers would surely vote for the opposition anyway.) In that scenario, it would be TOP 09 rather than the ODS that would reap the rewards, which surely isn't the new ODS leader's ambition. The answers, and the consequences, will only be known in the months to come.

The second surprise was the gains made by the smallest of the three coalition partners, Public Affairs (VV). It's a newcomer to national politics and there's some ambiguity about the party's true intentions, as a result of some unexplained business connections.

Because they've billed themselves the "anti-corruption party," VV announced that they wanted the Interior Ministry, which, they argued, is the best place to start an anti-corruption drive. The ODS, and Petr Nečas personally, were publicly critical of that demand, wary that Vít Bárta, VV's paymaster, is the founder and owner of ABL, one of the biggest security agencies in the Czech Republic, and might have his eye on Interior Ministry tenders.

Yet Public Affairs got the job. Their chairman, former journalist and TV celebrity Radek John, is to be the next minister of the interior. And Bárta will be the next transport minister -- in other words, the man responsible for infrastructure projects involving public tenders and huge sums of money.

Controversy immediately surrounded the announcement of the Interior Ministry appointment. Responding to criticism, Nečas said he had obtained personal reassurances from John that ABL would abstain from every tender placed by his future ministry, that no ABL personnel would be hired as Interior Ministry advisors, and that Bárta had already sold his chunk of the company -- to his brother. That seemed to be enough to calm Nečas. Regarding the transport portfolio, he made no comment.

Is it enough to sell your company to your brother and to abstain from Interior Ministry tenders -- and maybe try your luck elsewhere? That's one point of view. The second is that VV would risk a great deal, perhaps even its very existence, if it became involved in nepotism, conflicts of interest or any other dirty business after defining themselves as a force against corruption. The party could hardly defend its legitimacy if there was any scandal involving its leadership.

While these issues attracted much media attention, there are others that didn't. For example, the fact that most of the ministers come from the private sector. The next economy minister is the chairman of the supervisory board at the energy company ČEZ, a giant of the Czech economy and of the whole Central European region. The new agriculture minister also works with ČEZ, the minister for regional development-in-waiting set up a big pharmaceutical company, the man soon to be responsible for the environment is a manager of the north Moravian company C&D Finance Holding... It's surely not a crime to be a businessman but what about potential conflicts of interest? Will these ministers be asked to give assurances they'll govern independently of their former businesses? Will they be able to offer independence of thought?

Last but not least, there's not a single woman in the government. Along with Hungary, the Czech government is the only one of the European Union's 27 member states to have no female ministers. That's not a crime either but is it something to be proud of?

And yes -- the new Czech foreign policy. That's quite a question. The chief diplomat will be Karel Schwarzenberg, a man with an undeniably impressive background and reputation abroad who's already served as foreign minister previously. But with his open, coherent and pro-European stance, he seems isolated among this group of ministers. He has already lost one battle: the other two coalition partners want a referendum to be held in the Czech Republic on any new European Union treaty. The incoming foreign minister opposes this and wants MEPs to make this decision, as they do now.

Again, we'll only know how things develop at some point in the future. For now, the government will get its chance.

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