Czech Culture Minister Row Continues as Social Democrats Set Ultimatum

The Czech Social Democrat party leadership set a final condition for remaining in the minority government of Andrej Babiš, demanding that his ally, President Miloš Zeman, appoint their nominee for culture minister.

According to the Czech constitution, the head of state must dismiss ministers upon the request of the head of government, although the constitution does not set a deadlines for this.

Despite their ultimatum, the Social Democrats have not set a deadline either, even though their leadership did agree to support chairman Jan Hamáček’s mandate to negotiate whether to remain in government with Andrej Babiš’s ANO party.

President refuses to sack minister

The current crisis stems in large part from President Miloš Zeman’s refusal to sack the current culture minister, whom critics accuse of being ineffective, and replace him with the Social Democrats’ choice, Michal Šmarda.

Political scientist Patrik Eichler of the Masaryk Democratic Academy, a think tank associated with the party, says their presidium meeting shows Hamáček enjoys his party’s confidence, whatever lies ahead. And that the premier is keen to preserve the coalition.

"We can see that Andrej Babiš truly wants the government to continue. He went to the presidium of another political party, which is debating his cases, his problems, which are destabilising his premiership. So that’s a huge investment of political capital."

PM working hard to cooperate with "outsized" president

“He will work very hard to get President Miloš Zeman to finally agree to the nomination and appointment of Michal Šmarda as culture minster…I’m not saying it will happen tomorrow! But I think it will happen this summer.”

President Zeman has used ambiguities in the Czech constitution to play an outsized political role from the seat of the traditionally ceremonial post. It’s anybody’s guess how much longer he will delay appointing a new culture minister, though he promised to sack the current one, by July 31.

The Social Democrats agreed on Monday to decide on “further steps” by the end of the month. Last week, by a vote of 37-5, the party presidium in effect gave Hamáček authority to quit the government, should President Zeman not act on the culture minister issue by then.

Another few months of peace in the party?

But even if the culture minister question is settled, how long might peace last within the minority government? Patrik Eichler said:

“Until autumn, I think. In September or October, we can expect the results of the audit and decision regarding conflicts of interest of Andrej Babiš as the head of government. And of course there will be intense debate over the state budget, which must be sent to the lower house in October.”

The prime minister is hoping to secure budget finances for increased welfare spending and investment against a backdrop of slowing economic growth and massive protests against his government.

The coalition’s collapse would complicate those efforts, but it would not automatically trigger early elections. And Babiš has said he would try to rule, possibly with the support of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party.