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Czech centre-left pushes for deal on cabinet posts

Source: Reuters - Fri, 20 Dec 2013 09:06 PM
Author: Reuters
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(Adds timing of Christian Democrat vote on offer, party recommendation)

By Jason Hovet

PRAGUE, Dec 20 (Reuters) - Czech Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka made what he called a final offer on Friday to the smallest party in a potential centre-left coalition in a push to form a new government by the end of the year.

The Social Democrats want to form a government with centrist movement ANO and the Christian Democrats to fill the void in policymaking since a centre-right cabinet collapsed in June amid a bribery and spying scandal.

The division of ministerial posts between the three parties is one of the last outstanding issues before Sobotka can present his government to the president.

A deal looked closer on Friday after the Social Democrats, winners of an October snap election by a small margin, bowed to demands by the Christian Democrats and offered the party the agriculture ministry along with the culture ministry and a minister without portfolio.

"I see it as a final offer given that it is almost Christmas and the end of the year," Sobotka told reporters after a meeting of coalition party leaders.

The Christian Democrat party will vote on whether to accept the offer on Saturday, a spokeswoman said.

The party's leader Pavel Belobradek initially told Czech Television he was worried that the offer, which at first had not included agriculture, would not be enough for his party, which had wanted at least two "strong" ministries.

But in a later interview with the channel, he said the party's top leadership team recommended that the group's nationwide committee, which must sign off on the deal in a vote, accept the offered posts.

The Christian Democrats had pushed in particular for the agriculture ministry, important because of the support the party enjoys in Catholic, rural areas that are home to many small farmers.

The ministry also controls the country's land fund which will oversee the return of property confiscated under communism back to churches, under a law passed in November 2012.

UNCERTAINTIES REMAIN

A deal confirmed by the Christian Democrats would shift focus to President Milos Zeman, who has repeatedly said he would take an active part in forming the government, possibly rejecting some names that Sobotka nominates as ministers.

The central European country is now run by a caretaker government, appointed by Zeman against the will of the major political parties. It failed to win a confidence vote, triggering an early election, and lacks a mandate to push through major legislation while the economy recovers from a record-long recession.

The three coalition parties have already agreed on their policy programme, pledging to keep budget deficits below the EU's limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product while trying to boost growth.

If the Christian Democrat party were to reject the latest offer and pull out of coalition talks, it could force the other two parties into a minority government.

The Social Democrats and ANO, a movement founded two years ago by billionaire food and agricultural tycoon Andrej Babis, command only 97 of the 200 seats in the Czech lower house, which would make achieving some of the legislative goals difficult. The Christian Democrats hold 14 seats. (Additional reporting by Jan Schmidt and Robert Muller; Editing by Rosalind Russell and Sonya Hepinstall)

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