September 2003   česky

All summer long there had been speculation that the coalition government would fall once its public finance reform package failed to pass. It looked like an easy call given the numbers. The Social Democrats and their partners have a majority of a single vote in parliament and one of them, Hana Marvanová, was expecting a baby at any moment. Another member, Josef Hojdar, had been openly campaigning against the reforms, as were most trade unions. The teachers' union called for a strike on the first day of school to protest the government's plan to do away with the two extra monthly paychecks teachers receive every year, a perk that dates back to the Communist era. Being a Czech strike, it came to nothing. Just one-third of the schools answered the call and then for the first day only, when the students come, show off their new cell phones and go home. The labor unions had managed to stage some protests, but nowhere near the size of those that came out against the government when President Klaus was premier. The president had already done his part by vetoing an important part of the legislation after he said he wouldn't. And then there were the polls that showed the opposition Civic Democrats thumping the other parties in a mock election. Civic chairman Mirek Topolánek was feeling confident the government's days were numbered until someone asked him what would happen after it fell. "Why...uh...uh...uh..." The clueless Topolánek eventually put the word out that the Civic Democrats might support an interim government led by vice-premier Gross. His interior ministry may be in shambles, but Gross has managed to maneuver his people into key positions in and around the government, showing, if nothing else, he's a keen manipulator. The most obvious example is Jaroslav Tvrdík, whose defense ministry was also in shambles when he left it this summer. Tvrdík needed a job and Gross found him one as head of Czech Airlines, despite the fact that he never ran a major company before and has limited, very limited, knowledge of English. Fellow ministers supported the appointment with the view that the government should find them cushy jobs once they leave the cabinet. That way, they won't be tempted to reveal state secrets in some other capacity. Apparently the idea of civic duty, not to mention the law, never occurred to them. But the government definitely wanted to have one of its own at Czech Airlines because it will be spending money, a lot of money, in the future on new planes for its fleet. The million-dollar question is who will supply the planes, French Airbus or American Boeing. Tvrdík and Gross were strong supporters of the American intervention in Iraq, but haven't had much to say about it now that things aren't looking so good there. Even former president Havel, who couldn't wait to sign on to the war, is now claiming he has doubts about when and how it was conducted. His comments go well with the fact that he's just published a book of fairy tales. His dear friend Madeleine Albright is also out hawking a book and taking swipes at the Bush administration while she's at it. The war was wrong, she insists, because it never received UN backing. Of course, the air war she and Clinton waged against Yugoslavia in 1999 bypassed the UN too, but that was a humanitarian effort, you understand. Premier ©pidla has proved he can get along with either side. He returned from a love fest in Washington only to organize one for Bush nemesis Gerhard Schröder in Prague. The only people it seems he can't get along with are Czech politicians. The Communists have made it clear that what bothers them most about this government is ©pidla himself. Still, they hinted they were ready to offer enough support for the reforms to go through simply as a way of winning over disaffected members of the Social Democrats to their side. In the end the coalition was able to hold together and pass most of the reforms intact. Marvanová, who created so many problems during last year's budget vote, gave birth before this one and decided to give up her seat to become a full-time mother. Her replacement proved more accommodating, and in any case the Civic Democrats found themselves one vote short. Petr Kott, a former doctor who could easily pass for a bodyguard, didn't show up for the vote because, as his own party admitted, he was plastered. It wasn't a case of him sipping from a flask tucked away beneath his coat, rather standing in line at the canteen in the parliamentary building and buying any number of assorted drinks, all subsidized by the tax payers. The government's reforms, it would seem, still have a long way to go.