Social Democrats embarrassed in fuel tax vote

The senior coalition Social Democrats have suffered an embarrassing setback in the lower house after a group of their MPs on Wednesday joined the opposition to pass a bill lowering fuel tax. The move, which casts doubt on the Social Democrats’ unity, has raised the ire of coalition leaders over its massive impact on the state budget. However, coalition MPs have bent the rules of parliamentary procedure to schedule a new vote on the bill.

Illustrative photo: Filip JandourekIllustrative photo: Filip Jandourek A lower house vote on fuel tax breaks for Czech farmers on Wednesday turned into a major controversy after a Social Democrat MP inserted changes into the bill that lowered the tax on petrol and diesel across the board.

The legislation was smoothly passed by 126 votes in the 200-member lower house. Among them were 17 Social Democrat deputies, despite the fact that both Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Finance Minister Andrej Babiš vehemently opposed the bill.

The amendment, put forward by Social Democrat deputy Milan Urban, cuts the excise tax on petrol by 1.50 crowns per litre, and by 2.50 crowns for diesel.

Mr Urban – who is not close to Social Democrats leader Sobotka – argued that rising oil prices had made many Czechs buy petrol abroad and lower tax could lead to higher fuel sales in the Czech Republic.

But among the fiercest opponent was Finance Minister Babiš who addressed deputies shortly after the vote.

Andrej Babiš, photo: Filip JandourekAndrej Babiš, photo: Filip Jandourek “Mr Urban has come up with a totally irresponsible amendment that would cost the state budget 14 billion crowns which would be handed over to fuel distributors, rather than the public.

“You have no idea what you’re voting on and you should get informed. I’m ready to discuss the proposal but as it is, the money will go to distribution firms. If you don’t understand this, come for a lecture at the Finance Ministry.”

However, the coalition has moved to prevent the legislation from entering into force. Immediately after the vote, the Social Democrats asked for an hour’s break. When they returned, one of them, Ladislav Šincl, challenged the result, arguing his vote was incorrectly recorded by the electronic system.

The MPs upheld his objection, paving the way for a new vote scheduled for Friday. The lower house’s rules of procedure allow MPs to contest a vote immediately after it takes place. But on Wednesday, the objection was only raised later which provoked an outcry from the opposition. Tomio Okamura is the head of the Dawn party.

“Someone suddenly remembering after an hour or two that they want to raise objections, that to me looks like fraud, lies and swindle. It was a mistake probably caused by a lack of consensus in your ranks. But it’s a disruption of the country’s democratic principles.”

Bohuslav Sobotka (center), Milan Urban (right), photo: Filip JandourekBohuslav Sobotka (center), Milan Urban (right), photo: Filip Jandourek For his part, Bohuslav Sobotka called the incident a “voting error” which would be fixed on Friday, and said that those of his party’s MPs who backed the bill were acting out of ignorance rather than opposition to his leadership.

The opposition, meanwhile, has threatened to take the issue to the Constitutional Court if a new vote on the bill is held.