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Wednesday / October 2.

Czech Social Democrats dig in heels over minister nominee, threatening government

PRAGUE (Reuters) – The Czech Republic’s junior coalition party the Social Democrats said on Monday they were sticking with their preferred candidate for culture minister, prolonging a spat that is threatening the survival of Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s minority government.

FILE PHOTO: Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babis takes part in a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

The Social Democrats requested in May that President Milos Zeman sack Culture Minister Antonin Stanek, whom they accuse of being ineffective, and to replace him with their preferred candidate, Michal Smarda.

Zeman has so far refused to finalize the personnel change, angering the party he once led and creating a standoff.

At a meeting of the wider party leadership on Monday, the Social Democrats stopped short of a decision to leave the coalition with Babis’s ANO party or have their ministers resign, but kept the threat of resignations on the table.

They called in a resolution for Babis to ensure the party’s nomination for culture minister is respected.

“I expect another round of negotiations between the prime minister and president in this matter,” Social Democrat leader Jan Hamacek told reporters. “We are convinced that the rules apply to everyone.”

Under the Czech constitution, the president is obliged to fire ministers if requested to do so by the prime minister, but Zeman is known for acting independently of the government. In this dispute he has said there is no deadline for taking action.

While Zeman has defended current minister Stanek, he last week promised to dismiss him by the end of July. But Zeman gave no assurances he would appoint Social Democrat nominee Smarda.

His office declined to comment on Monday.

Babis has sought to keep his coalition alive, visiting the Social Democrats’ leadership meeting on Monday. He told reporters the coalition has been successful.

The Czech economy has grown strongly in recent years with Babis first as finance minister in a previous government and since he came to power after a 2017 election.

The state has posted some of its first budget surpluses in decades. Critics, though, say spending has grown to generous and will weigh on future budgets, ending the period of surpluses.

Markets have been unfazed by the latest government dispute, similar to disputes in ruling coalitions that have marked Czech politics for over a decade.

The Social Democrats’ departure would strip the government of its parliamentary majority.

Zeman has suggested Babis could turn to the far-right, anti-EU and anti-NATO Freedom and Direct Democracy Party for support in parliament. Babis has rejected the suggestion.

A snap early election could only be held if 120 members of the 200-seat lower house agreed on calling the vote. Babis has said early elections would hurt the country.

Reporting by Robert Muller; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Toby Chopra

via Reuters