June 7, 2008 / 6:56 AM / 10 years ago

Czech PM says gov't could fall this year: report

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The Czech Republic’s ruling coalition may collapse by the end of the year unless it can overcome infighting and push ahead with reforms, Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in a newspaper interview on Saturday.

With just 100 of parliament’s 200 seats, the centre-right coalition has struggled to pursue its plans to overhaul public services and cut what it sees as wasteful state spending since it took power in 2006.

It has relied on independents to push through some laws, but several coalition deputies have broken ranks, and this week members of Topolanek’s Civic Democrats torpedoed a bill aimed at returning church property seized by the communists last century.

“The coalition is shaken,” Topolanek told the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes. “If there is not a catharsis that would lead to the confirmation of a majority this summer, then autumn could mean the fall of the government.”

Investors and credit rating agencies have praised the government’s efforts to cut taxes, clear hospital waiting rooms of people who are not very ill and crack down on one of Europe’s worst workplace absenteeism rates.

But it has sparked widespread public ire with measures like introducing $1.85 fees for doctor visits and prescriptions — a shock to many in the country of 10.3 million who are not used to paying directly for healthcare after decades of communist rule.

The ruling grouping’s factions have also locked horns over health reforms, nuclear energy, the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, and plans to host part of a U.S. missile defense system, all issues the government must deal with in the coming months.

Infighting both among and within the Civic Democrats and their governing partners, the Green Party and the Christian Democrats, have compounded defeats at the hands of the Socialist Democrat-led opposition and the country’s courts to bring the reform drive to a halt.

“If we are not able to realize reforms, which will be clear sometime near the end of the year, in November or December, then we must leave,” Topolanek said.

A government collapse would not immediately trigger snap elections but would first lead to talks to find a new majority-backed administration.

The Social Democrats, who led Topolanek’s party by 11.5 percent in a poll last month, have called for an early vote.

Analysts say any reforms not tackled in the coming months may struggle to gain traction later because the government will be occupied with the rotating European Union presidency in the first half of 2009, followed by the runup to a 2010 election that would probably freeze unpopular steps.

The situation resembles Hungary, where proposed health reforms stalled after voters struck down doctor visit fees in a referendum. The government gave up, lost a coalition ally, and now is limping toward the 2010 election.

Reporting by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Charles Dick

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