The Social Democratic Party elected Jan Hamáček, deputy chairman of the lower house, as the party’s new leader on Sunday, entrusting him with the task of entering into negotiations on a possible coalition government with Andrej Babiš’ ANO party. The move may bring a breakthrough in the stalled government talks.
Jan Hamáček, a former speaker and now deputy chair of the lower house, represents a pragmatic wing in the ailing Social Democratic Party which took a severe beating in October’s general elections. In contrast to some of his rivals for the top post, Hamáček has advocated making the best of the opportunities that present themselves, rather than going into the opposition to give the party time to consolidate.
His task now will be to bring the divided party together and win the best possible deal for the Social Democrats in a future government. This in spite of warnings from his unsuccessful rival Milan Chovanec that ANO would exploit the Social Democrats and President Zeman’s advice that given their 15 deputies in the lower house the Social Democrats should not ask for ministerial posts. Shortly after his election, Hamáček said he would aim high.
“The least advantageous deal for us would be some form of tolerance under which we would give ANO a carte blanche to pursue its policy, without having the power to control or influence what the government is doing. So, as I see it, if we are going to negotiate about a government we should aim for direct participation in it.”
ANO leader Andrej Babiš, who has repeatedly made it clear that he would prefer a minority government of his own party members and unaffiliated experts, said he was ready for talks, but made it clear he was keeping all his options open.
„We will enter into talks with the Social Democrats and it will be up to them to state the conditions under which they would tolerate our government or be part of it. We are offering them a place in the government, but we will have to see if the conditions are right. The Mayors and Independents party (STAN) has also opened the door to negotiations and we will talk with whoever is willing to negotiate.“
The big question is whether the Social Democrats would be able to accept Andrej Babiš who is charged with EU subsidy fraud, as prime minister. ANO insists that he should head the cabinet and so far only the Communist Party, which has said it would tolerate the government under certain conditions, has indicated it would accept such a situation.
The Social Democrats made it clear at their weekend conference that they considered criminal prosecution a serious problem and called on ANO not to block the emergence of a viable government by nominating a minister who faces criminal charges. The new Social Democrat leader has previously said that Babiš should not be part of such a government, but he did not rule out that this could change if the only other option was early elections. The party has also made it clear it would not want to be part of a government or tolerate a government which had to rely on support from the anti-migrant Freedom and Direct Democracy Party.
When talks with ANO start the new Social Democrat leader will be treading a tightrope, balancing between the need to negotiate a good deal for the party and not make concessions which would further divide it or eat away at its dwindling public support. One thing is clear – judging by the outcome of Sunday’s vote – the majority of party members are willing to take the risk in return for a more active role in Czech politics.