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Tremors will be felt beyond Czech borders

By Rob Cameron
BBC News, Prague

The Czech Republic is, like the rest of Europe, being bitten by the global economic crisis - but that is not why its government was unseated in a confidence vote on Tuesday.

Czech PM Mirek Topolanek at European Parliament 25/3/09
Some say Topolanek's authority in the EU is now shot

It may be tempting for foreign editors gazing at a map of Europe to add the Czechs to the short list of European governments (Iceland, Latvia and Hungary) that have fallen victim to the global slump.

But Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's downfall had nothing to do with the recession. It wasn't the economy, stupid.

Rather it was the determination of a small group of defectors, two from Mr Topolanek's Civic Democrat party, two from the coalition Greens, to help the left-wing opposition bring him down.

They did so for ideological or personal reasons, or in some cases both. One Civic Democrat renegade said he had voted against the government because his party had supported the Lisbon Treaty. That should make the Eurocrats in Brussels very worried.

Confusion looms

So what happens next?

In the short term: nothing. Under the Czech constitution, Mirek Topolanek and his ministers must submit their resignations to the President, Vaclav Klaus. But until a new government is found, Mr Topolanek stays on as acting prime minister. There is no time limit on how long - the constitution does not say.

The constitution is also silent about whom the president should choose to form a new cabinet. Past tradition suggests President Klaus will ask Mr Topolanek first, but he is under no obligation to do so. If no-one can form a government, the country could be in for early elections. However, the constitution's rules for calling them are also notoriously tricky.

But should anyone outside the country care?

Well, the former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain once dismissed Czechoslovakia as a "small country about which we know nothing". The Czech Republic is even smaller than Czechoslovakia, but it is rather important at the moment. What happens in Prague could have far-reaching consequences beyond Czech borders.

Czech Social Democrat opposition leader Jiri Paroubek
Opposition manoeuvres may have undermined Prague's reputation for stability

Some of those consequences could be economic. Until now, Czech leaders have - with considerable success - corrected the distorted view that central and eastern Europe is a homogenous mass of political and economic instability. The Czech Republic in particular - with its healthy banking sector, strong currency and low household debt - should not be lumped in, they said, with countries like Hungary or Latvia.

All that careful PR has been wiped out in a flash. As one Czech newspaper put it, the four rebel MPs who voted against the government on Tuesday have probably done more to nudge the country into the same league as Hungary than all the economic data combined.

Authority vanished

Then there is the EU presidency - currently held by the Czechs.

The European Commission responded to the government's fall by saying it had "full confidence" in the Czechs, while Mr Topolanek said in Strasbourg the political situation would have "no impact" on the presidency.

That is not quite the view from Prague.

"The Czech presidency is over, on a political level at least," Jiri Pehe, former adviser to ex-president Vaclav Havel, told the BBC.

The political leadership of Europe will now shift away, he believes, to other European capitals, and to politicians who believe they have more authority to lead the EU through a time of crisis.

Mr Topolanek's fall will vindicate leaders such as Nicholas Sarkozy of France, who barely concealed his misgivings about handing the EU's reins to an inexperienced new member from the east.

For the EU's Lisbon Treaty, meanwhile, this is bad, even catastrophic news.

Mr Topolanek had undergone a transformation in recent months. Once a staunch opponent of further European integration (he once told a Czech newspaper the moribund EU constitution was "shit"), he is now one of Lisbon's supporters.

He carefully shepherded the reform treaty through the lower house, managing to persuade enough MPs in his conservative Civic Democrats to ensure a smooth passage.

Lisbon's supporters hoped he would be able to repeat the trick in the upper house, the Senate. But Mr Topolanek's authority is now severely weakened, and the initiative is firmly in the hands of his nemesis, President Vaclav Klaus. Mr Klaus dislikes Mr Topolanek. And he hates the Lisbon Treaty.

Missile plan

As if the economic downturn, the presidency and Lisbon were not enough, there is also the fate of the radar base to be built on Czech soil, as part of the US missile defence shield. This, too, is a project languishing in the political doldrums.

Barack Obama
The Czechs may have helped Barack Obama make up his mind on missile defence

The plan must still be ratified by the lower house, but the government was recently forced to withdraw the treaties on the base because they risked being shot down by the opposition. That was a setback, but if Mr Topolanek is forced out, the missile defence shield will lose a key supporter and component.

Perhaps that does not matter. After all, President Barack Obama seems far less keen on missile defence than his predecessor, and his administration is busy "reviewing" the plan. But when Mr Obama visits the Czech capital on 4-5 April, what will he say to a prime minister who has been sacked about a project that has no future - at least not in the Czech parliament?

All this is unclear, as is the MPs' real motivation for bringing down the government, as is who will lead the next one. Based on past experience, it will take many, many weeks - if not months - for the parties to agree on a solution.



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