Czechs eye early vote to end political standoff

The Czech Republic on Thursday faced the prospect of early elections after the government lost a confidence vote, the latest turn in a crisis triggered by a spy and bribery scandal.

Czech lawmakers will meet next week to vote on the dissolution of parliament and will likely pave the way for new elections, as the numbers point to a vote in favour.

The move comes after the technocrat government of Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok lost a confidence vote late Wednesday less than a month after it was appointed.

"In line with the parliamentary rule of procedures, speaker ... Miroslava Nemcova has convened the (dissolution) meeting for Friday August 16, 2013," Nemcova's spokeswoman Eva Smerdova said in a statement.

Under the constitution, a snap election must take place within 60 days after parliament is dissolved.

"Early elections are the only reasonable solution to the situation," Josef Mlejnek, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP.

"No one can form a political cabinet with this composition of parliament, and technocrat cabinets are only temporary."

The crisis erupted in June when right-wing prime minister Petr Necas stepped down as his lover and chief-of-staff Jana Nagyova was arrested and charged with bribery and abuse of power.

Left-wing President Milos Zeman then named a technocrat cabinet led by his friend Rusnok, snubbing his centre-right rivals who held a narrow majority in parliament.

Under Czech law, parliament had to approve the new government within 30 days but Rusnok won only 93 votes from the 193 lawmakers present, falling short of the simple majority needed.

However, the vote also dealt a blow to the parties in the Necas coalition which had hoped Zeman -- who has emerged as the key figure pulling the strings in the crisis -- would give them a chance to form a new cabinet.

Several centrist and right-wing lawmakers left parliament rather than vote against Rusnok, losing Necas's three-party coalition its narrow majority of 101 seats in the 200-member assembly.

TOP 09, currently the most popular party on the right, immediately began manoeuvring for new elections, teaming up with the left-wing Social Democrats -- tipped as the next election winner -- and the Communists.

"It doesn't make sense to wait with this situation," said Social Democrat chairman Bohuslav Sobotka.

Parliamentary speaker Nemcova, from the right-wing Civic Democrats formerly led by Necas, said her party might back early elections, although it currently trails in opinion polls.

"I think there is no other, more dignified way out," she told reporters.

A constitutional majority of 120 lawmakers is needed to dissolve parliament. The Social Democrats, Communists and TOP 09 command 122 votes together.

"Snap election," read a front-page headline in DNES, the top-selling daily broadsheet, while another two dailies said "Czechs head to the polls."

The formal dissolution must be made by Zeman, who would have preferred that the non-partisan Rusnok administration remain in office until regular elections next May, analyst Mlejnek said.

Rusnok said he would officially resign this week but would lead the cabinet until early elections, "implementing a common agenda that stirs no political controversy".

"Zeman will use the cabinet to boost his own position. He may use it to swap many people in top strategic positions and to use these newcomers later on," Mlejnek said.

Like much of Europe, the Czech Republic, an EU member state of 10.5 million people, has been hit hard by the global financial crisis and has been in recession for a year and a half.

Analysts say the current political crisis has had little impact on central Europe's third largest economy, which is heavily dependent on car production and exports.

Nevertheless, the central bank has forecast the economy will again shrink this year, by 1.5 percent.