Jan Macháček


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Czech Business Weekly

No reform coach, no leader in sight

19. 03. 2007
There are certainly some nice faces and pleasant people in this new Topolánek government, but where, we might ask, is the economic reform leader? Where’s the coach?

You know, the familiar personality who explains the issues to the public, the star of a permanent reform roadshow who pushes his colleagues to get down to some serious work and, if necessary, uses some discipline to get results. After all, it was with the slogan, “We intend reform,” that Mirek Topolánek (Civic Democrat, ODS) and his aides finally threw out any idea of a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (ČSSD).

This three-party government coalition’s single biggest trouble was supposed to be that its coalition can only muster 100 of Parliament’s 200 votes. But equally acute troubles are emerging from within. Yes, some of the government’s people do have worldly experience. Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg, for example, has a deep knowledge and lifelong experience of Europe; Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra spent years as ambassador to the U.S.; and Minister of Agriculture Petr Gandalovič was the Czech consul general in New York. The trouble is that, like Topolánek, they’re not economists.

Parliamentary deputy Vlastimil Tlustý was supposed to be an economic reform leader of the ODS, but with his competence, professionalism and integrity under fire, he had to leave the government. Yet he was the only party figure capable of presenting elegant, and even convincing, PowerPoint reform presentations at the ODS congress, even though he’s an agricultural engineer by education. Anyway, he’s gone.

The fact that the most powerful ministry, finance, was offered to Miroslav Kalousek of the small and seemingly disintegrating coalition partner, the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), was very much down to the ODS not having a serious, trustworthy candidate of its own. Kalousek may understand public finances better than Tlustý, but he’s not even chairman of his party and he’s certainly no star economist. By education, he’s a chemical engineer.

Then there’s Deputy Prime Minister Petr Nečas who takes care of social affairs even though he has a background as shadow defense minister. Like Kalousek, he’s put forward as a reform leader, but he’s also not an economist. Ideologically, he comes across as a typical compassionate conservative who waffles over any big spending cuts.

Ex-Prime Minister Miloš Zeman had economist Pavel Mertlík, and successors Stanislav Gross and Jiří Paroubek could turn to Martin Jahn. Who’s Topolánek got? Perhaps he should look overseas. In America, the president invites prestigious private-sector experts to enter the administration. People like Vondra, Nečas and Gandalovič basically have no experience with private enterprise. Since 1990, they’ve been paid by the taxpayer. Although, to be precise, Vondra was out “on his own” working as a consultant for one year. Topolánek himself has a less than glorious past as a 1990s entrepreneur. His engineering company VAE greatly relied on public contracts, but the company still ended up debt ridden. Bankruptcy was only staved off because someone close to the ODS and the Prague municipality was willing to help out.

Topolánek tells us he wants this government to be reformist. He wants to distinguish himself from President Václav Klaus, who as PM always hesitated over, or even opposed, potentially painful reform steps. Unfortunately, the discontent is already apparent–where’s the leadership, Mr. Prime Minister, where’s the beef?

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