Coalition brings political stability
In the period from November 2014 to November 2015, a coalition government, headed by Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka, together with the Movement of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO) party, led by billionaire Andrej Babiš, and the Christian Democrats has brought relative political stability, though ongoing tensions continued within and between the coalition partners have hampered effective decision-making.
Economic growth underlies efficient policymaking
The government has benefited from a return to economic growth with lower budget deficits and falling unemployment. The growth in employment is driven by continuing growth in exports and also by higher consumer spending and some restoration of investment levels, helped both by increased inward investment and by investment into infrastructure financed from EU structural funds. The situation of low-skilled workers, minorities and women on the labor market remains problematic, and regional differences in employment remain significant. The fight against corruption featured prominently in the Sobotka government’s program. The verbal commitment is strong, but there is as yet no political agreement within the coalition over the actual measures, sequence and timing of implementation. Internal tensions between the two main coalition partners are exacerbated by the open ambition of the billionaire ANO Chairman Andrej Babiš to run for prime minister in 2017. In the period under study, all parties have maintained the image of being driven and efficient legislators. Ministers were removed for various reasons ranging from accusations of conflict of interest to incompetence – often meaning a failure to implement satisfactorily the government’s program, or failure to implement it within the expected time scale. Social partners, and in particular trade unions, were increasingly consulted. This contributed to improving the social sensitivity of the tax changes.
Unresolved issues for the long-term economic prosperity of the Czech Republic include weak family policies, specifically a lack of institutional solutions to support (lower income) working families, and weak immigration policy. Research and innovation efforts have been given a high profile, but since European structural funds are the key source of funding for these efforts their sustainability is questioned. There is broad access to education, although the country’s higher education numbers still lag behind those in Western Europe.
Migration, EU integration drive populist fears
One of the main societal issues in the period under study was the country’s reaction to the migration crisis. The actual number of refugees was small (approximately 1,100), but fears were aroused of threats to the nation, its values and identity. The handling of refugees was criticized by NGOs, Public Defender of Rights Anna Šabatová, some ministers and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. There are no substantial external threats, but the populist politics and style of media reporting leads to a growing perceived threat – of migrants, islamization and unified Europe, which are all presented as threats to the Czech way of life. It also leads to a cautious approach to issues of European integration, despite promises from both President Zeman and the Sobotka government to depart from what was perceived as a negative approach from preceding governments.
Agenda derives from coalition pacts
As for policymaking, much still depends on detailed coalition agreements. Yet once these have been settled, ministers are likely to retain considerable discretion. There is very little interministerial cooperation, especially across party lines. The public is increasingly well-informed on government decisions and on the positions of political parties, but this is under some degree of threat following the transfer of foreign-owned print media to Czech business groups. The Czech parliament has the means to exercise substantial control over the government. It has a separate audit office that monitors public bodies and has the power to monitor the implementation of its recommendations as well. An ombudsman investigates complaints against public offices, but has no powers beyond making its findings public. The internal structures of the main political parties allow for both the election of leaders and members, but internal debate is limited.