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COVID, crisis and the constitution: Is change coming in the Czech Republic?

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By David Hutt
A woman flashes victory signs during a protest joined by thousands against the government restrictive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections.
A woman flashes victory signs during a protest joined by thousands against the government restrictive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections.   -   Copyright  Credit: A¨P
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The perils of governing without a majority were very nearly cruelly exposed in the Czech Republic when MPs voted against extending a coronavirus-related state of emergency.

It would have meant bars, restaurants and cafes reopening, the end of a nighttime curfew and a ban on more than two people gathering in public lifted.

But the country's regions rescued the minority government from embarrassment. They asked for the state of emergency to be extended, arguing they did have not enough powers to fight the pandemic. It gave the government the get-out it was looking for.

Czech's COVID crisis is 'total chaos'

The crisis comes amid an ever-worsening pandemic emergency that Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague, describes as “total chaos”.

Out of a population of 10.7 million people, the country has recorded 1.09 million cases of COVID-19 and 18,250 deaths, as of February 16.

With 915 new confirmed cases per 100,000 people in recent weeks, it is the second-worst affected country in the European Union after only Portugal.

Hospitals are at the brink of their capacity and last week the authorities were forced to stop movement in and out of the three worst-affected districts.

The country’s vaccination campaign has been slow to get going because of delays in deliveries from the EU, whilst the public’s observance of lockdown regulations is waning.

Some 47% of Czechs admitted to not staying at home even if they suffered from COVID-19 symptoms, according to a survey published in early February by the World Health Organization and the German University of Erfurt.

It also found that 76% of Czechs do not trust the government’s messaging about the pandemic and 45% still believe the risks are exaggerated by the media or politicians.

The minority government of Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ ANO party and its Social Democrats (CSSD) ally has typically depended on the Communist Party’s votes to push legislation through parliament. However, the Communists withdrew their support for the government’s latest state of emergency legislation at the weekend over complaints that its calls for schools and ski lifts to re-open weren’t heeded.

What impact will the crisis have on October's general election?

With a general election in October and campaigning now informally beginning, all this points to a major political problem for Babis, one of the Czech Republic’s richest businessmen who was elected in 2017 on the populist pledge to run the country like a company despite being under investigation by the EU for subsidy fraud.

“Babis, who wanted to be the person to save the Czech Republic, is now in the eyes of many people responsible for the crisis because it was him who wanted to decide everything,” Dvorakova said.

Indeed, although the Czech Republic achieved success at the beginning of the pandemic last March through strict lockdowns, Babis greatly eased restrictions after June and was triumphalist over the summer.

But his micromanagement of government business has engineered several major crises. In September, Adam Vojtech stepped down as health minister after falling out with Babis. At the time, Vojtech wanted to reimpose strict lockdowns but the prime minister was thought to be opposed as he didn’t want to jeopardise his party’s popularity at local elections held the following month.

Vojtech’s replacement, Roman Prymula, immediately imposed tougher restrictions but was forced to resign less than two weeks into the job after being caught breaking his own ministry’s rule of social gatherings.

The third health minister in the space of a year, Jan Blatny, has remained in the post but late last month Babis said he might be fired for poor communication. It is believed that Prymula might make a return as he is considered politically close to Babis and President Milos Zeman.

Credit: AP
Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman, right, appoints Andrej Babis as Prime Minister at the Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, June 6, 2018Credit: AP

Boost for small players could hit the governing party

The ANO party has been losing ground in opinion polls for several months and its chances of maintaining power at a general election in October could be further hobbled after the Constitutional Court enforced key changes to the electoral system in early February.

This halved the threshold needed for coalitions to enter parliament down to 5% and imposed new rules on the distribution of seats.

This is expected to significantly boost the electoral chances of smaller parties and coalitions, which has multiplied in recent months. Babis rebuked the changes and called them politically motivated.

The libertarian Pirate Party, the second-largest opposition party in parliament, and the Mayors and Independents movement (STAN) agreed to a coalition pact in January. In October, the three centre-right opposition parties - the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and TOP 09 - also formed a new grouping, named “Together”.

A recent survey by the pollster Kantar currently gives ANO 26% of the popular vote, behind the Pirates-STAN coalition’s 29.5%. With the addition of the Social Democrats 3.5%, that puts the current minority government neck-and-neck with the largest opposition coalition.

However, there are rumours that the Social Democrats, who are currently undergoing a leadership election, will refuse to ally with ANO in another minority election after October’s election.

Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University, advises caution. He stresses that ANO’s popularity remains around the 25% mark and its supporters are loyal, which cannot be said for other parties.

“There is also quite a lot of time until the election and it is uncertain what will happen next. We are at the ‘top’ of the pandemic crisis, but it can be expected that this will not be the case during the elections in October,” he said.

Before then, though, there is little optimism that the government will turn around the country’s pandemic crisis sooner rather than later. It remains in doubt if the government can even extend the state of emergency when the current limit expires in two weeks, while reports suggest the health ministry is attempting direct talks with vaccine suppliers, which would be in violation of the EU’s rules on common usage.

On politics, the one big question mark is President Zeman, a populist and autocratic figure whose role will be to appoint the next government after October. If there is no clear majority or compromise between the parties, Zeman could step in as king-maker - albeit in ways that suit his own designs over the Czech Republic's future.

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