PRAGUE — If Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš thought his toughest battle was behind him after his ANO movement won October’s parliamentary election, he now knows differently.
President Miloš Zeman formally swore in a Babiš-led government on Wednesday, but its future is anything but secure. Most Czech parties have refused to join the government because the billionaire prime minister has been charged with fraud involving a €2 million EU subsidy for a farm and conference center in 2008.
As a result, ANO is 23 votes short of a majority in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies. So Babiš — who denies the charges — will spend most of the holiday break trying to seduce party leaders and mavericks into supporting his administration when it faces its first vote of confidence in early January.
That will not be easy. This week, the center-right Civic Democrats, the second-strongest party in the chamber, and most of the other parties, declared again that they would not support a minority government led by Babiš. And Tomio Okamura, the leader of the anti-immigration and anti-EU SPD, which finished third in the voting, said his party would only support a government that would carry out its hard-line program.
Only the Communists have remained open to supporting the new government. But that would still leave Babiš eight votes short of a majority.
At the swearing-in ceremony in Prague Castle, the prime minister called for political unity. “All political representatives must be on one ship, fighting for the security of our people and Europe,” he said.
However, losing the vote of confidence would not mark the end of Babiš’ efforts to form a viable government. Zeman — who is standing for reelection in January — has declared that he would give Babiš two chances to form a functioning administration.
Political analyst Jiří Pehe, director of New York University in Prague, suggested this scenario suits both men — as a political crisis could boost Zeman’s reelection chances and put pressure on other parties to support a Babiš government.
“I don’t think Babiš wants to get the votes this time,” Pehe said. “The way he’s been putting together this government, without many discussions with the other parties, he is fully prepared not to pass the vote of confidence.”
The daily Pravo, which is close to the Social Democrats, reported that a faction within the party may buck the leadership and vote to support a Babiš-led minority government. If so, it may encourage rebels from other parties.
In addition, the prime minister may also be working on ways to ensure his immunity from prosecution — as a member of parliament — is not lifted. The last parliament lifted his immunity just weeks before the election. But Babiš now has immunity once again, as a member of the new parliament.
“He gave the Communists and SPD some posts in the parliament that they could not have realistically hoped for, as payment to block the loss of immunity,” Pehe said.
Both Okamura and Communist Party Chairman Vojtěch Filip were appointed deputy speakers of the Chamber of Deputies. In addition, another Communist Party member was named chairman of parliament’s mandate and immunity committee, which has postponed a decision on Babiš’ immunity until January.
Pehe said not having a stable government in January would aid Zeman’s reelection bid because “he will be able to present himself as an experienced and strong president who knows his stuff” and so is better qualified than an inexperienced candidate to lead the country out of the crisis.
“Zeman will ask Babiš to form his second government just between the first and second rounds of the presidential election,” Pehe said. “So [Zeman] will get much more publicity than any other candidate.”
Zeman addressed speculation along these lines at the Prague Castle ceremony, insisting there was nothing to it. “I don’t see the direct connection between the presidential election and the second attempt of the Babiš government,” he said.
Babiš has one final card to play if he cannot form a viable government. If he ultimately decides that he has to call another election, ANO would almost certainly win, and probably more decisively than in October.