A long post-election hiatus in the Czech Republic has ended after a new government took office, promising urgently to tackle rampant Covid-19 infection rates, inflation, energy prices and a ballooning budget deficit.
Ten weeks after decisively winning a general election, a five-party coalition headed by Petr Fiala, the new prime minister, was sworn in by the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, who urged it do “something useful” amid dire warnings of an incipient crisis in the central European country.
Zeman, whose ill-health and long hospital stay delayed the government’s inauguration, issued his rallying call at a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential retreat in Lány Castle in rural Bohemia, after which Fiala laid a wreath at the grave of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia.
“The easiest thing to do would be to just wish you success, but that’s not very specific,” Zeman told the 18-member new cabinet, all of whom underwent Covid tests before being allowed to participate. “I would therefore like to wish you something useful to leave behind. It sounds obvious, but it is not obvious.”
Fiala, 57, a former political science professor, becomes the Czech Republic’s 13th prime minister since its formation in 1993 after Czechoslovakia’s dissolution. He replaces Andrej Babiš, a billionaire former oligarch, who has been positioning himself to run for the Czech presidency when Zeman’s term ends in 2023 after his populist government was defeated in last October’s poll.
Fiala, leader of Civic Democrat party (ODS) and head of the two-bloc coalition’s biggest faction, Spolu (Together), promised to waste no time in addressing the country’s “huge problems”. “We are not starting in an easy situation, a lot of things in our country have been neglected,” he said. “We want to work from the first moment,” he said.
The first meeting of the cabinet on Friday afternoon was scheduled to consider whether to extend a state of emergency instituted last month by the outgoing government to tackle the Covid pandemic. The Czech Republic has one of the world’s worst fatality rates from the virus, with more than 35,000 deaths in a population of 10.7 million.
Commentators say any honeymoon period will be short, with Babiš promising stern opposition, helped by his ownership of two daily newspapers and a popular radio station.
“Petr Fiala is taking over in easily the most difficult circumstances facing any post-communist prime ministers,” said Albin Sybera, a Czech political analyst. “He could easily and quickly find himself in a crisis situation whipped up by ANO [Action for Dissatisfied Citizens, Babiš’ party] and the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, who remain formidable forces.”
The new prime minister, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, has already won a trial of strength by rebuffing Zeman’s attempt to veto the appointment of the new foreign minister, Jan Lipavský, on the grounds of supposedly poor academic qualifications and an allegedly critical stance towards Israel.
In an apparent piece of petty score-settling, Vratislav Mynář, the head of Zeman’s office, obliquely referenced the disagreement during Friday’s ceremony by announcing the new foreign minister as “Master … I’m sorry, bachelor, Jan Lipavský”. The slip was seen as a contrived allusion to Lipavský having only a bachelor’s rather than a postgraduate degree, a purported reason for the failed veto effort.
Analysts suggested Zeman’s move was aimed at retaining influence over foreign policy, which he has tried to orient towards support for the authoritarian regimes in Russia and China.