Category Archives: Czech Republic

Between Notary and Creator: Presidents and Government Formation in the Czech Republic

This post is based on the article by Lubomír Kopeček and Miloš Brunclík that has just been published in East European Politics and Societies

In this paper, we use our classification system to assess the influence that the presidents of the Czech Republic have so far exerted over fourteen cases of government formation process since 1993.

Let us briefly recall the classification which is presented below. It consists of five major patterns – from “observer” as the weakest head of state, to “creator” as the only government-maker. Unlike numerous indices of formal presidential power, the classification reflects the real constitutional practice of government formation and takes account of various informal factors (e.g. the president’s relationship with parliamentary parties; the presence/absence of legitimacy; the fragmentation of party system) that may strengthen or weaken president in the government formation process (GFP).

Table 1: Presidents’ influence over the GFP

Control over the GFP Political preferences Level of activity
Observer no irrelevant no
Notary limited irrelevant low
Regulator medium relevant medium
Co-designer main relevant high
Creator exclusive relevant very high

Before focusing on the Czech presidents, Václav Havel, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, it is necessary to briefly describe the constitutional framework that regulates the government formation process in the Czech Republic. The Czech constitution (Art. 68) gives the president a comparatively large discretion in the GFP, when it says only that “The President of the Republic shall appoint the Prime Minister and, on the basis of the Prime Minister’s proposal, the other members of the government and entrust them with the management of the ministries or other offices.” The president is not obliged to appoint the leader of the largest parliamentary party, nor does the constitution specify any time period within which the president has to appoint a new prime minister. This large discretion may explain the protracted government formation, which started shortly after the 2017 parliamentary elections and which has not been accomplished yet[i]. The newly appointed cabinet is obliged to win the motion of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies (art. 68). If the government fails to win the Chamber’s confidence (which requires an absolute majority of votes from the deputies present), the initiative passes back to the president and the constitution prescribes that the whole procedure is repeated. If this second appointed government should fail in the Chamber, the right to choose the prime minister is passed to the Chamber’s speaker. Should the speaker also fail, the president has to dissolve the Chamber.

In this post we summarise only the major findings of our article, which analyzes in detail individual cases of the government formation process[ii]. The actual practice of the GFP shows a great variation in the role of Czech presidents: it varies from notary to creator (see table 2 below). There were thirteen government formation processes in total. We identified eight notary presidents (Havel in 1998/2 and 2002, Klaus in 2006, 2007 and 2009, Zeman in 2014, 2017 and 2018), four regulators (Havel in 1996, Klaus in 2004, 2005 and 2010), one co-designer (Havel in 1998/1) and one creator (Zeman in 2013).

We argue that the variance results from two major factors. Firstly, the timing of the GFP is important. When the GFP directly followed parliamentary elections, presidents were mostly much weaker. This finding applies also to two situations (2006-2007 and 2017-2018)  in which the first attempt to appoint a new cabinet failed, i.e. the cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, given a complicated situation there. However, using their power to appoint yet another cabinet, presidents Klaus and Zeman chose the same person as prime minister, because there was no viable alternative cabinet sponsored either by parliamentary parties, or by president.

Out of six such cases (the GFP following the parliamentary elections), there were five notary presidents (1998, 2002, 2006, 2013-2014 and 2017) and in two cases there were regulators (1996 and 2010). In contrast, when the GFP followed a government break-up during the electoral term of the Chamber of Deputies, presidents were significantly stronger. Out of six such cases, there were two notary presidents (2007 and 2009), two regulators (2004 and 2005), one co-designer (1998) and one creator (2013).

Secondly, the president’s role depends on the actual power of parties, i.e. their ability to act together as a firm parliamentary majority, which 1) does not need much help from the president in the GFP and 2) which is determined to challenge a potential attempt by the president at influencing the GFP more than the parties wish. In several cases, presidents resolved to play a greater role in the GFP than a notary, but often they faced a firm parliamentary majority that actually did not allow them to exert their influence. Indeed, at least in two cases a solid parliamentary majority thwarted overt presidential attempts to leave a much greater imprint on the final outcome of the GFP:  Havel in 1998/2 and Klaus in 2007.[iii]

In contrast, the presidents were particularly strong in times of major political scandals, when parties’ legitimacy suffered heavily and the president could take advantage of it. The most notable examples are Havel in 1998/1 and Zeman in 2013. The last case is particularly important, since it was the first GFP affected by the newly popularly elected president, who made an overt attempt at becoming a ruling president through the installation of a technocratic cabinet without any agreement whatsoever with parliamentary parties. This is a clear example of the president capitalising on his popular election, which was introduced in 2012 and which gave the president a legitimacy advantage. Indeed, Zeman explicitly referred to the fact that he had recently been elected by the majority of Czech voters. Moreover, the technocratic cabinet was closely tied to Zeman’s own party, which, although it lacked parliamentary representation, hoped the ministers would help it get media attention and public support in the 2013 parliamentary elections. This was, however, unsuccessful.

Table 2: Czech presidents in the government formation process

President Year and Prime Minister Role of president
Havel 1996: Klaus Regulator
1998/1: Tošovský Co-designer
1998/2: Zeman Notary (failed regulator)
2002: Špidla Notary
Klaus 2004: Gross Regulator
2005: Paroubek Regulator
2006: Topolánek I Notary
2007: Topolánek II Notary (failed co-designer)
2009: Fischer Notary
2010: Nečas Regulator
Zeman 2013: Rusnok Creator
2014: Sobotka Notary (failed regulator)
2017: Babiš I Notary

The step taken by Zeman was a radical breakthrough in the parliamentary regime and a major shift in the president’s role towards that of creator (e.g. government-maker). In so doing, he destroyed a key constitutional convention linked to the parliamentary basis of the political regime. Comparing the behavior of Zeman with that of his predecessors Havel and Klaus, there is an obvious, substantial, qualitative difference. Zeman’s predecessors always appointed a government cabinet that resulted from a deal with parliamentary parties (only the Tošovský cabinet in 1998 partly broke from the rule).

Thus, with the exception of the Rusnok cabinet (and to a certain extent the Tošovský cabinet too), parties by and large have managed to assert their will against that of the president. This has been substantially facilitated by the fact that no president has managed to create a solid and strong party backing in parliament. As a result, a political proximity between the parliamentary parties and the president plays only a marginal role in the GFP, since the presidents’ relationship to parties was ambiguous and sometimes full of paradoxes.[iv] This has been influenced by the public’s desire for non-partisan or so-called “above-partisan” presidents, who are to a large extent independent of political parties. This is true even though all three presidents were close to some parties or factions. Václav Havel was never a partisan, but he had a number of political allies, particularly in the small parties (the Christian Democrats, Freedom Union etc.), but he never attempted to create his own party. In contrast, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman had been partisan prime ministers and leaders of the then largest parties, but they resigned from their party and their relationship with their original parties became rather cold. Of the three Czech presidents, Václav Klaus enjoyed the strongest party backing, but only in the early days of his presidency. Still, the steps he took when governments led by the Social Democrats found themselves in crisis do not testify to Klaus acting as an ODS politician, although he later displayed moderate preferences for some ODS-led cabinets.

Evidently, Havel and Klaus were careful in building their ties with parties because their presidential mandates originated in parliament. This was not the case with Zeman, who has sought to create his own party backing much more purposefully. Nonetheless, his party (Citizens’ Right Party – Zeman’s Followers) failed in the 2013 elections and the pro-president faction within the Social Democrats likewise lost their standing.

Common to all three presidents has been their ignoring of certain parties or at least creating obstacles to their participation in government negotiations or formation. This was very conspicuous with Havel, who repeatedly excluded the Communists from coalition bargaining, and also the far-right Republicans, when they held parliamentary representation[v]. Despite formally respecting the Communists, Klaus effectively took the same position, and in fact went further by wanting signatures of “non-communist MPs” on a document pledging support for a government. This approach created the foundation for the role of the president-regulator. In reality, however, presidents have not always been successful.

Having applied the classification to the Czech case, we demonstrate a great variance in the degree of influence that presidents exert over the GFP, although formal constitutional rules regulating the GFP have remained unaltered since 1993. To slightly amend Maurice Duverger’s famous statement on the divergence between formal constitutional rules and actual constitutional practice,[vi] we can speak about “uniformity of rules, diversity of games.”

The variance of the roles presidents have played in the GFP results mainly from the timing of parliamentary (and sometimes also presidential) elections and from the solidity of parliamentary parties and their ability to act independently of the head of state. In contrast, the political proximity between president and the parliamentary parties does not appear to be key to understanding the level of influence presidents exert over the GFP.

As far as the Czech constitution is concerned, its importance lies in the fact that it offers the president a substantial and not entirely clearly defined space in the government formation process. In availing themselves of this space, all three presidents have very often refused to play the role of a notary who merely confirmed the results of negotiations between parties or provided a decorative façade for the process. Havel, Klaus and Zeman sought to play very active roles and, circumstances permitting, push through their own political ideas and attitudes.

As for the effect of the popular election, it is beyond doubt that it potentially boosts overall presidential power[vii] and in particular it gives the president additional leverage in the GFP, but only if he enjoys the advantage of legitimacy over parliament. But what is more important, the president has not been able to push political parties into the background and push through his own government. The president’s installation of the 2013 Rusnok technocratic cabinet was only a temporary solution; party leaders once again managed to secure the main say for themselves, and the president was forced into the role of head of state in a parliamentary regime. The increased activism of the popularly elected head of state hit the barriers erected by parties – barriers that the president, lacking his own party backing in parliament, has been unable to overcome.

Notes

[i] The Babiš cabinet appointed in January 2017 failed to receive the obligatory vote of confidence in the lower parliamentary chamber and the GFP had to start from scratch. Andrej Babiš was in early June 2018 appointed Prime Minister again, but his cabinet (Babiš II) has not been formed yet, as parties still negotiate with president on filling individual ministerial posts. Also, the junior coalition party – the Social Democrats – are awaiting results of their inter-party referendum that is supposed to confirm or reject party’s engagement in the Babiš cabinet.

[ii] In comparison to the original article, this post takes account of the more recent case of the GFP: Babiš I (Babiš II is being formed in June 2018 and is not therefore included in this post.

[iii] In at least two other cases parties left no room for the president to take initiative (Klaus in 2009 and Zeman in 2014).

[iv] M. Brunclík and M.Kubát, Semi-presidentialism, Parliamentarism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019 forth.), p. 110 af.

[v] In contrast, president Zeman was clearly in favour of incorporating the communists as well as the radical-right wing populists (the Freedom and Direct Democracy) in a ruling cabinet.

[vi] “Similarity of rules, diversity of games” by M. Duverger, “A new political system model: semi‐presidential government.” European Journal of Political Research 8(1980).

[vii] A. Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries (New Haven: YUP, 1999).

Czech Republic – The President and a protracted government formation process

Although the 2017 parliamentary elections took place some six month ago, the Czech Republic still lacks a fully fledged cabinet. The country is currently run by a partisan caretaker cabinet led by Andrej Babiš, the leader of the largest parliamentary party, ANO (“ANO” means “yes” in Czech). His cabinet, which was appointed in December 2017, failed to receive a vote of confidence in the January 2018 parliamentary vote. In line with the Constitution, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to carry out governmental functions until a new cabinet is appointed. At the same time, he gave Mr. Babiš a long time horizon (until the end of June) to form a new cabinet which would enjoy parliamentary confidence. Given the strong presidential powers in the government formation process, President Zeman (along with Andrej Babiš) became a central figure of this process.

As far as the government formation negotiations are concerned, there is a paradox. ANO is a pragmatic centre-oriented populist movement that lacks a clear ideological profile. Instead, it is characterized by bowing both to the right and to the left and flexibly changing its policies. This flexibility gives ANO a great coalition potential. Indeed, ANO has been able to negotiate with almost all parliamentary parties. That said, ANO has failed to win support for its minority cabinet or generate a majority coalition cabinet. This puzzle can be explained by the very fact that Mr. Babiš, the leader and also the de facto owner of the ANO movement (ANO is a prime example of a business-firm party), faces a number challenges, including a police investigation of his business, his past co-operation with the former Communist secret police, and allegations of instructing political journalists of the media he owns. In addition, Andrej Babiš finds himself with a considerable clash of interests, because he is the owner of the Agrofert group, one of the largest business conglomerates in the country, owing various agricultural, food processing, and chemical companies. Agrofert is also the largest beneficiary of various state subsidies. Most parties are willing to co-operate with ANO, if Mr. Babiš stays outside the future cabinet. However, ANO insists that Mr. Babiš is its only candidate for the role of prime minister, which is understandable given the fact that ANO comes close to the ideal of one-man party.

Andrej Babiš can also rely on almost unconditional support from President Miloš Zeman. This pragmatic alliance between Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš (including their political styles, policies and rhetoric) brought thousands of people onto the streets of many cities across the Czech Republic in spring 2018. The protesters showed their anger with both figures and also with the rising importance of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), the legal and ideological successor of the former Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The party has recently increased its influence upon the executive, because it is likely to support Babiš’s future cabinet. The party has not been in government since the 1989 Velvet revolution and no cabinet has so far been reliant on the votes of the Communists. This stable feature of the Czech politics seems to be coming to an end. In symbolic terms, this shift can be illustrated by the fact that Miloš Zeman attended the KSČM party congress in April 2018, whereas his two predecessors in the presidential office, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, never did so.

The most probable shape of the future cabinet appears to be a minority coalition by ANO and the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), supported by KSČM, which is the option that was also supported by Miloš Zeman. ČSSD is heavily influenced by Miloš Zeman, who was the social democratic PM between 1998 and 2002 and who encouraged the party to join an ANO-led coalition. The party is still badly divided on the issue of joining the coalition with ANO. However, in spring 2018 the party’s congress elected its new chairman and vice-chairmen, who are supportive of co-operation with Mr. Babiš on condition that ČSSD would get four seats in the cabinet plus the Ministry of Interior to keep an eye on “neutral” police investigation related to Babiš’ alleged fraud of a two million euro EU subsidy. ČSSD also insists that if a government member (in fact M. Babiš) is convicted of a crime by a court, he will be obliged to resign from the cabinet. Mr. Babiš eventually accepted the former condition, but he strongly rejects the latter.

Andrej Babiš has also considered a minority ANO cabinet supported not only by KSČM, but also by a radical-right wing populist movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy” (SPD) led by a political entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, whose party has called for a “Czexit” (i.e. Czech Republic’s withdrawal from the EU), has pushed for a Czexit referendum, and has a strong anti-immigration rhetoric, which has made its critics call the movement “fascist”.  However, the idea of the ANO-led cabinet supported by SPD and KSČM was eventually rejected by ANO’s leading figures.

When it comes to the most important events of the second Zeman’s term, one can identify a consistent pattern. He keeps polarizing the Czech society. In his inaugural speech, he harshly attacked Czech quality media, including the Czech television, which is generally considered one of the most reliable sources of information in the Czech Republic and which is modelled on the BBC. Furthermore, Miloš Zeman has kept supporting Russia and Vladimir Putin. This peaked at his speech in the Council of Europe towards the end of his first mandate in October 2017. At that time he said that the annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli and that European countries should look for alternative solutions to the crisis, such as Ukraine getting financial compensation for Crimea from Russia, or free deliveries of crude oil or natural gas. Such a position clearly diverges from the government’s position and displeased Ukraine.

In March 2018 the Novichok nerve agent was used to try to kill former GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the UK. British representatives have accused Russia of this act. Russia denied the allegations and argued that the nerve agent could have been produced in the Czech Republic. Although Prime Minister Babiš dismissed the Russian claim, Miloš Zeman asked the Czech counter-intelligence service to look for the Novichok agent. This led to a couple of Czech parliamentary parties to accuse Zeman of high-treason and of serving the interests of Russia against the interest of the Czech Republic. In relation to the Novichok scandal, a large number of (not only) European countries, including the Czech Republic, expelled Russian diplomats, but Miloš Zeman did not support this move.

Another controversy over Zeman’s foreign policy was also related to Russia. In spring 2018 Zeman lobbied the Minister of Justice for the extradition of Yevgeniy Nikulin to Russia, who had filed for his extradition on the grounds of a petty online theft. The suspected Russian hacker was, however, extradited to the United States, where he was charged with hacking American firms such as LinkedIn and Dropbox. The media speculated that Nikulin might have some details on Russia-sponsored cyber-attacks on the USA. As a reaction, Zeman’s chancellor to the president, Vratislav Mynář, called the minister‘s decision “unlawful”.

President Zeman also supports Chinese political and economic interests in the Czech Republic. Many observers were taken aback by Zeman’s decision to make Ye Jianming,  Chairman and Executive Director of CEFC China Energy Company Limited (a giant Chinese finance conglomerate with alleged links to Chinese secrete services), his official economic advisor in 2015. Although Zeman highly appreciated Chinese investments in the Czech Republic, they remain only marginally important for the Czech economy. Moreover, Ye Jianming was detained by the Chinese authorities. Ye’s detention in China was probably ordered directly by the Chinese president Xi Jinping. In the past, several CEFC’s representatives were accused of bribery and CEFC was criticized for risky investment projects.

Although these events have clearly cast doubt on Miloš Zeman’s foreign policy, he remains highly popular as some 50% of population trust the President. As for his use of presidential powers in the last six months, Miloš Zeman has respected the dominant position of the caretaker government and has not pushed the limits of his competences. There has been almost no conflict between the president and the government. President Zeman still retains the control over the government formation process. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Babiš will be successful in creating a new cabinet. Even if he fails for the second time (i.e. the Chamber of Deputies will not pass a motion of confidence in his cabinet), the power to appoint a new prime minister passes from the president to the Speaker of the Chamber of Depuites, Radek Vondráček, an ANO member.

When European presidents abused presidential term limits

The abuse of presidential term limits is rife. In Uganda deputies voted only last month to abolish the age limit for presidential candidates. This decision paved the way for President Museveni to stand for a sixth term, the two-term limit there having already been scrapped in 2005.

In Europe, here meaning the member-state countries of the EU plus Iceland and Switzerland, presidential term limits are not subject to abuse. However, Europe has not always been exempt from practices typically associated with the abuse of presidential term limits. Indeed, there have been examples of presidential terms limits being abolished, ‘grandfathering’ clauses being introduced, and term lengths being extended to suit particular presidents.

In five European countries, presidential term limits have been abolished at some point. In these cases, the process of abolition was often associated with the manipulation of presidential term lengths as well.

  • In France, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was directly elected as president in December 1848. With the constitution allowing only a four-year non-renewable term, he staged a coup in December 1852, soon becoming Emperor Napoleon III.
  • In Lithuania, the 1926 coup led by Antanas Smetona was followed by a new Constitution in 1928. In the new Constitution, presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished, leaving President Smetona constitutionally secure in power.
  • In Portugal, a presidency was established with the 1911 Constitution following the abolition of the monarchy. In 1933 Salazar’s so-called Estado Novo constitution extended the president’s term to seven years and abolished term limits. Salazar himself didn’t serve as president, but the abolition of presidential term limits was part of his strategy for securing power in the regime at that time.
  • In Austria, President Hainisch stepped down in 1928 because he was term limited. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Miklas. In 1933 Prime Minister Engelbert Dolfuß effectively ended democracy by shutting down parliament. In 1934 a new Constitution was passed in which presidential term lengths were extended and term limits were abolished. President Miklas benefited from the change, though he was allowed to do so because he was such a docile figure that he posed no threat to the authoritarian regime.
  • Finally, in Czechoslovakia the 1948 Constitution included a term-limit clause. The 1948 Constitution was drafted before the Communists fully assumed power that year. In 1960 a new Constitution was passed, leaving in doubt the Communist nature of the regime, and term limits were abolished as part of the reform.

‘Grandfathering’ is where a particular individual is exempt from a general rule. In the case of presidential term limits, it means that the Constitution includes a term-limit procedure, but a particular individual is exempted from such limits and, in effect, serves as a president for life. There are two historic cases of ‘grandfathering’ in Europe, both in Czechoslovakia.

  • In the 1920 Czechoslovak Constitution, the text stipulated a seven-year term with a two-term limit. However, it also stated that these provisions did not apply to the first president. This was Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. President Masaryk reminded in power until 1935 when he resigned on health grounds.
  • In the 1948 Czechoslovak Constitution, there was also a clause stating that the term-limit provisions did not apply to a particular person, this time to the second president of the Republic. This was Edvard Beneš. He had succeeded Masaryk, becoming the second President of the Republic, only to be forced from power after the Munich Agreement in 1938. He returned in 1945 and was president in May 1948 when the Constitution of that year was promulgated. However, Beneš opposed the Communist takeover and he resigned in June 1948, effectively making the ‘grandfather’ clause a dead letter.

In effect, then, the abuse of presidential term limits in the countries in the sample here ended in the early post-war period. This is partly because in the post-war period most European democracies have had figurehead presidents, leaving little incentive to abuse term-limit provisions. More importantly, the abuse of term limits is endogenous to the abuse of the rule of law more generally. In other words, the abuse of term limits is a symptom of a democracy in decline, rather than the cause. Given democracy in Europe has remained strong, term limits have been respected. We only have to look at a European country outside the sample here, Belarus, to see how term limits were abused when democracy itself was abolished.

It is worth noting, though, that in four European countries in the sample, there are currently no presidential term limits. They are Cyprus, Iceland, Italy, and Malta. In addition, two democracies previously operated for long periods without term limits – Finland from 1919-1990 and France from 1875-1940 and again from 1958-2008.

The absence of term limits has led to some ‘long’ presidencies, even when countries have been unequivocally democratic. In Finland, President Urho Kekkonen was in office from 1956-1982 and in Iceland four presidents have served for three or more terms, with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson holding the presidency from 1996-2016.

In Iceland, Italy, and Malta, there are figurehead presidents. So, there is little call for the introduction of presidential term limits. Cyprus, though, has a presidential system. No Cypriot president has been elected for more than two consecutive terms since Makarios III, even if a number of presidents have stood unsuccessfully for a third term. Even so, the introduction of term limits is regularly part of the political debate. Indeed, a bill to this effect is due to be debated in the legislature very soon.

Overall, in European democracies presidential term limits are, almost by definition, safe from abuse as long as the rule of law remains in place. However, in the past term limits have been abused and more recently some European democracies have witnessed ‘long’ presidencies in the absence of a presidential term-limit clause.

The Czech Republic – The 2018 Presidential Elections: A Divided Country

Miloš Zeman, the incumbent president of the Czech Republic, has been re-elected. His success is likely to usher in yet another divisive presidency. To date, Zeman’s time in office has been characterized by his provocative style, his contempt for most of the media, an unpredictability in domestic politics, his clearly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy and, consequently, a lack of respect from many EU member states’ representatives.

Despite a number of controversial steps and speeches both in domestic and foreign policy, President Zeman entered the presidential contest as the favourite. In total, eight male candidates challenged the incumbent. Most of them lacked both party membership and political experience, which clearly points to the weakness and low self-confidence of Czech political parties. Indeed, no parliamentary party put up a candidate in the presidential race.

The Czech president is popularly elected for a five-year term. The first election was in 2013. In order to be elected, a candidate must receive more than 50 per cent of the votes cast at the first ballot. If none of the candidates meets this requirement, a second round is held. The two candidates who received the highest number of the votes in the first round are eligible for the second round.

In line with pre-election surveys, President Zeman topped the poll in the first round, followed by Jiří Drahoš. Mr. Drahoš is the former chairman of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He entered the contest as the complete opposite to Miloš Zeman. Drahoš lacked political experience, whereas Miloš Zeman often pointed to his long political career that dates back to the 1989 revolution that put an end to the Communist dictatorship. Zeman was the former chairman of the Czech Social Democratic Party, Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002. By contrast, Drahoš is a non-partisan, portraying himself as an honest and fair man without any scandals and controversies in his career. He was also strongly oriented towards the EU and NATO and was highly sceptical position towards Russia, which he described as a major security threat to the Czech Republic. Most of these policies were also shared by several other candidates, including Pavel Fischer, the former Czech ambassador to France and a close aide to the first Czech president Václav Havel.

Long before the elections, President Zeman divided the Czech electorate. On the one hand, he had a significant pool of staunch supporters. Zeman is a skilful politician with excellent rhetoric (always speaking off-the-cuff), well-prepared arguments in debates and and instinct for the public mood and popular preferences. On the other hand, his foreign policy, vulgarisms, harsh attacks on some media and political parties as well as individual politicians gave rise to a heterogeneous group of fierce critics.

Mr. Zeman won the first popularly-held elections in 2013. Then, he narrowly beat Mr. Schwarzenberg, a popular and charismatic Minister of foreign Affairs in a highly unpopular right-wing cabinet led by Petr Nečas. Following the 2013 elections, and in contrast to his predecessor President Klaus, President Zeman quickly reached a compromise with the Senate over the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, where the terms of a number of judges were soon to expire. President Zeman helped avert this unfortunate situation and together with the Senate appointed largely uncontroversial and respected personalities to the Constitutional Court. President Zeman informally, but significantly meddled in the internal affairs of the Czech Social Democratic Party, which has traditionally been divided between Zeman’s supporters and his critics at least since Zeman left the party in 2007. For example, his hostile relations with the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka (2013-2017), were often referred to by the foreign media.

It is plausible to assert that Zeman earned his popularity by his almost permanent travelling across the country, visiting regions, speaking to regional and local political leaders, as well as to factory workers, pensioners, students and the like. This patient (and exhausting) strategy helped to create the largely positive image of himself as a popular president who pays attention to ordinary, lower-class or forgotten people in the Czech peripheries. This aspect of Zeman’s presidency together with his deteriorating health (e.g. diabetes, tiredness, limited ability to walk) may explain Zeman’s decision not to run an election campaign. In practice this meant that Zeman did not participate in any of the presidential debates prior the first round of the election. In addition, on most occasions he rejected any requests for media interviews. At the same time, he still enjoyed widespread media coverage. The President was heavily involved in the (still ongoing) government formation process following the October 2017 parliamentary elections and participated in a number of state ceremonies. Moreover, he regularly attended a show called a “Week with the President” broadcast by a private TV channel, which made no secret of the fact that President Zeman was its favoured candidate for the presidential contest. Friendly and uncontroversial questions allowed Zeman to present himself as a clever and responsible statesman. The very fact that President Zeman himself officially conducted no campaign did not prevent his followers and sponsors from making a very efficient, visible and costly outdoor and on-line campaign for President Zeman.

The major disadvantage of Zeman’s challengers (with the exception of the former Czech Prime Minister, Mirek Topolánek) was simple, but serious: none of them was a widely known person and above all they needed to let the voters know who they were. Even before the second round, Mr. Drahoš was still a little known (or even unknown) candidate for a significant proportion of voters, which affected the election result.

Only after the results of the first round were announced when Mr. Drahoš did very well, emboldening all the anti-Zeman camp to believe that the incumbent was not invincible, did President Zeman change strategy and agree to participate in two televised presidential debates. Mr. Drahoš tried to attack Zeman, drawing public attention to a series of failures and problems (including lack of transparency in the campaign fund-raising, questionable members of Zeman’s advisory team with close ties to Kremlin and Beijing). Despite Drahoš’ best efforts, observers agreed that President Zeman won the debates.

Results of the 2018 Czech presidential elections:

Candidates Party First Round Second Round
votes % votes %
Mirek Topolánek non-partisan 221 689 4,3 X X
Michal Horáček non-partisan 472 643 9,18 X X
Pavel Fischer non-partisan 526 694 10,23 X X
Jiří Hynek Realisté (“Realists”) 63 348 1,23 X X
Petr Hannig Rozumní (“The Reasonable”) 29 228 0,56 X X
Vratislav Kulhánek ODA (Civic Democratic Alliance) 24 442 0,47 X X
Miloš Zeman SPO (Party of Civic Rights) 1 985 547 38,56 2 853 390 51,36
Marek Hilšer non-partisan 454 949 8,83 X X
Jiří Drahoš non-partisan 1 369 601 26,6 2 701 206 48,63

Source: https://volby.cz/pls/prez2018/pe2?xjazyk=CZ

In the end, Zeman narrowly won the contest (see table above), but the country remains divided. This is exemplified by the fact that the turnout in the second round reached almost 67%, which is the highest in any Czech nation-wide election over the past two decades. The division in the electorate dates back to the 2013 presidential elections and its existence was confirmed by the 2017 parliamentary elections. What is the difference between President Zeman’s followers and those of his opponents? President Zeman found most of his voters in smaller towns and villages in the Czech peripheries, whereas Mr. Drahoš won in Prague, the Central Bohemia region and in most of large cities. It also seems that older voters with lower education and income levels largely voted for Miloš Zeman. Zeman was also able to take advantage of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Czech population. Despite the fact that only a handful of migrants actually settled in the Czech Republic, migration issues and the EU migrant quotas were important themes of the campaign. It also seems correct to argue that Zeman represented nationalist voters, who are sceptical and even hostile to the EU and NATO (although Zeman was careful to advocate the Czech membership of both organizations), and voters with strong anti-party sentiments. To sum up, President Zeman was able to forge an unique informal electoral alliance of the far-left (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which praised the former Communist dictatorship), the ruling populist ANO led by the Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, radical right-wing populists (the anti-migrant movement “Freedom and Direct Democracy”, favouring a “Czexit), Eurosceptical right-wing voters, and a significant portion of the Czech Social Democratic Party’s voters. This heterogeneous alliance now holds a clear majority in the Chamber of Deputies.

What can we expect from the incumbent? Mr. Zeman will probably keep pursuing his policies as well as his divisive political style. In his first speech following the election, he attacked Prague voters (in Prague President Zeman got only 31% of the vote). For the next few weeks and months, Zeman’s role in the government formation process will be key. In December 2017 Zeman appointed Andrej Babiš as the new prime minister. Babiš formed a one-party minority cabinet composed of ANO nominees. Yet, his cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in January 2018, mainly because Mr. Babiš is being prosecuted by the police. He has been formally charged with fraud in a case involving a two million euro EU subsidy. Yet, Mr. Zeman and Mr. Babiš have so far supported each other. The former openly sided with the latter in the 2018 presidential contest and Mr. Zeman promised to appoint Mr. Babiš Prime Minister again in February 2018. At the moment, Mr. Babiš leads a caretaker cabinet that resigned in January following the no-confidence vote. However, President Zeman authorized Babiš’ cabinet to execute its functions until a new cabinet is formed. The media are now speculating that the Social Democrats will  change their leaders following their February party congress and abandon their reluctant approach towards the Babiš cabinet. As a result, Babiš might be able to make a coalition deal with the Social Democrats. The new Babiš coalition could be supported by the Communist Party in order to obtain a parliamentary majority in the Chamber of Deputies. This scenario is also supported by Miloš Zeman. Be it as it may, Zeman has won his last great political battle (the constitution forbids him to run for yet another term) and he will remain an influential player in Czech politics.

Czech Republic – Between parliamentary and presidential elections

A couple of weeks ago parliamentary elections were held in the Czech Republic. The country is also awaiting another electoral contest, the presidential election, which will be held in January 2018. To be sure, by far the most important elections are the parliamentary elections, because the president does not have enough power to affect major policies in the country (neither in terms of formal constitutional competencies, nor in terms of real power as Czech presidents have traditionally lacked a strong partisan background, which would allow them to gain additional leverage in the Czech politics). Yet, presidential elections can hardly be labelled as second-order, because the office is highly prestigious and presidential activities have traditionally been closely followed by media and general public. In addition, the president plays a very important role in the government formation process, which is currently a key political issue in the Czech politics.

The two elections are intertwined: the parliamentary elections will lead to a new government, but central to the government formation process, which is under way, is the president, who has the power to appoint the prime minister and on his proposal further government members. At the moment, there is no clear parliamentary majority – one that would back a new government in future a vote of confidence. Thus, it is clear that the president’s preferences and involvement in negotiations are of crucial importance. Moreover, the current president, Miloš Zeman, is seeking re-election. His participation in the government formation process might influence whether or not parliamentary parties will decide to support him in the presidential elections.

Before turning to the issue of the upcoming presidential election, it is useful to briefly summarise the major outcomes of the parliamentary elections:

1.) The Czech Republic has now a highly fragmented parliament with nine parties.

2.) The clear victor was ANO 2011, a populist movement led by a wealthy entrepreneur and former vice-prime minister and minister of finance (2014-2017), Andrej Babiš. His movement scored almost 30% of the vote.

3.) There are three parliamentary newcomers: the Pirate Party with 10.8%, the radical right-wing populists in the Party of Direct Democracy (SPD) with 10.6% and the liberal pro-European “Mayors and Independents” (STAN) with 5.2%.

4.) A relative success for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which received about 11% of the vote and which recovered from its 2013 defeat, when it suffered its lowest ever electoral result (7.7%). The liberal-conservative ODS was the main ruling party from 1992-1997 and 2006-2013.

5.) Electoral disaster for the traditional left-wing parties: the Social Democrats (ČSSD), who won the 2013 elections and who led the previous government coalition cabinet, ended up with 7.3% in 2017. The Communists (KSČM) dropped from 14.9% in 2013 to 7.8 % in 2017.

Although in mathematical terms various government coalitions are conceivable, ANO 2011 has so far been unable to negotiate an agreement with any of the parliamentary parties to support either a government coalition, or an ANO 2011-led minority cabinet. The key to understanding ANO 2011’s failure to find supporters in the Chamber of Deputies does not lie in the party’s program or policies. ANO 2011 is a centrist movement that does not display any strongly anti-European, far-right or far left elements. Instead, it lies in the person of Andrej Babiš. He is currently under investigation by the Czech Police as well as by the European Anti Fraud Office (OLAF) due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. Most parliamentary parties have refused to cooperate with Babiš, given the allegations and the police investigation. At the same time, Andrej Babiš can take most of the credit for the success of his movement, which approximates the concept of the business-firm party. Although ANO 2011 has several other remarkable members, it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that it is a one-man party. However, Babiš’ problems or even scandals (e.g. evidence that Babiš was an agent of the former Communist Secret Police; allegations about the controversial methods through which he became billionaire in the 1990s) were well-known and were discussed in the media even before he entered parliament in 2013. In 2017 Babiš won the highest share of preferential votes of all other politicians. In other words, a significant part of the electorate tolerates Babiš’ problems as exemplified by the ANO 2011’s election victory and his personal popularity.

Moreover, Babiš gained another powerful supporter – the Czech president Miloš Zeman, who authorized Babiš to form a new government cabinet in early November and who disregarded all the controversies connected to Andrej Babiš. The media have speculated that Babiš and Zeman have struck an informal deal: Zeman will not block Babiš to become the Prime Minister and Babiš’s ANO 2011 will not propose its own candidate for the 2018 presidential election, thus clearing the way for Zeman’s victory in the January contest. Although Babiš may not be able to command a parliamentary majority, the Czech constitution allows the president to appoint Babiš’ cabinet in a way that allows it to take office immediately after the appointment and start carrying out its functions. The newly appointed cabinet is obliged to ask the Chamber of Deputies for a confidence vote within 30 days of the appointment, but even if it fails to receive the confidence of the legislature, the president may authorize this cabinet to execute its functions until a new cabinet is formed. This will be again the president’s task. Thus, there is a possibility that the Czech Republic might have a government lacking parliamentary confidence for several weeks or months, a scenario President Zeman conceded.

Miloš Zeman is the first popularly elected president. His presidency has been marked by a number of controversies, such as his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese orientation; breaking several constitutional conventions and even constitutional provisions; and his relatively frequent use of vulgar terms in public. Yet, Miloš Zeman has been able to remain relatively popular among the general public, as he constantly travelled across the Czech Republic throughout  his term of office, visiting all Czech regions, meeting citizens of all occupations, age and social class, deliberately building an image of a popular and friendly president, who is able to talk and listen to any citizen. As a result, Miloš Zeman, enjoying an incumbency advantage, is currently the most likely winner of the first round of the 2018 presidential elections as a recent poll indicated. In order to get elected, the successful candidate has to receive more than 50% of votes. If none of the candidates fulfills this condition, a second round of the elections is held in two weeks after the first round. Only the two most successful candidates from the first round are allowed to participate in the second round. The candidate with highest number of votes is elected president.

Zeman is challenged by about a dozen other presidential candidates, but polls indicate that only two of them have a real chance of beating Zeman: the former director of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jiří Drahoš, and an musician, producer and entrepreneur, Michal Horáček. Zeman, though, struggles with yet another challenger – his health. Zeman’s ability to walk has visibly deteriorated recently and the media have been speculating about his other health troubles.

It is worth noting that none of the parliamentary parties nominated its own party candidate for the presidential contest. Three factors may explain this unusual pattern. First, there has been a tradition of non-partisan presidents in the Czech Republic. Voters prefer politically neutral presidents. Although the last two Czech presidents, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, had originally been the leaders of the largest parliamentary parties, they entered the presidential office as neutral persons who did not side with any political party. Thus, a strictly partisan appeal may be detrimental to a candidate’s chance. Second, traditional political parties in the Czech Republic are on the defensive, as they are not trusted as exemplified by the 2017 election results. They are reluctant to put up their own candidates out of fear that they may completely fail in the presidential elections, which was the case of partisan candidates in the 2013 presidential elections. The far-right or far-left parties are well aware of the fact that their candidates have only a theoretical chance of winning. Third, some parties simply act tactically – by pushing their own presidential candidates, parties might hinder the chances of a candidate, who is politically inclined towards them. This was the case with the Communists in the 2013 presidential election, because their voters preferred Miloš Zeman. In principal the same tactics can be now seen with ANO 2011.

The presidential campaign has already started, but on 7th November the list of candidates for the presidential office was closed. This was the deadline for official candidate submissions. They must be supported by one of the following ways:  50,000 signatures of voters, 10 signatures from the Senate, or 20 members of the Chamber of Deputies.

At the moment it seems that a minority ANO 2011 cabinet and Miloš Zeman’s re-election are the most likely scenarios in 2018, although other alternatives remain open too.

Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe

This post summarises the new book by Philipp Köker ‘Presidential Activism and Veto Power in Central and Eastern Europe’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). The book is the inaugural volume in the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics (edited by Robert Elgie and Gianluca Passarelli) and is based on Philipp’s PhD thesis which won the ECPR Jean Blondel PhD Prize 2016.

Presidential powers feature prominently in academic debates. Paradoxically, until now only few scholars have tried to analyse and explain how presidential actually use them. This book tries to fill this gap in the academic literature, but is also rooted in a real-life encounter with presidential activism. As an undergraduate intern in the Polish Sejm I witnessed first-hand the negotiations between President Lech Kaczyński and Gregorz Napieralski, newly elected leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), on blocking an override of the president’s veto of the media law in July 2008.The aim of this book is map and analyse such patterns in the activism of presidents and explain when and why presidents become active and use their powers. Thereby, it focuses on 9 Central and East European democracies (i.e. those that joined the EU in 2004/2007) during the period 1990-2010. Given that their political systems were created during the same, comparatively short period of time, share a common trajectory of development and were confronted with the same challenges, they are particularly suited for analysis. With regards to presidential powers, I concentrate on two of the most prominent presidential powers:

  1. the power to veto legislation and return it to parliament
  2. the appointment and censure of governments and cabinet ministers

The central argument is that presidential activism can best be explained by the institutional structure – including the mode of election – and the political environment, particularly the relative strength and level of consensus between president, parliament and government. Thereby, I argue that popular presidential elections matter fundamentally for presidential activism – directly elected presidents are agents of the public rather than parliament and lack the constraints and potential for punishment faced by their indirectly presidents elected counterparts (which challenges Tavits 2008). Furthermore, presidents should be more active when they find themselves in cohabitation with the government, when parliamentary fragmentation is high, and when the government does not hold a majority in the legislature.

To test these and additional hypotheses, my book uses a nested analysis research design (Lieberman 2005) that combines the statistical analysis of an original cross-section time series data set on the use of presidential vetoes with carefully selected case studies based on numerous elite and expert interviews in four most-different countries. The analysis of presidential activism in government formation and censure is thereby deliberately left for the qualitative analysis as there is no adequate quantitative data yet.

Patterns of Presidential Veto Use in Central and Eastern EuropeMy regression models generally confirms the majority of my hypotheses. In line with the table above, my model results clearly show that presidents used their veto power significantly more often than indirectly elected presidents. Furthermore, presidents were more active during neutral relations with the government and cohabitation and the effects of the governmental and presidential seat shares, too, showed the expected effects. Echoing findings from the study of presidential veto use in the United States, president also vetoed more frequently the more bills were passed by parliament. Based on the predictions of the statistical models, I then select 12 president-cabinet pairings in four countries (Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) for further in-depth analysis. Thereby, I make sure to select both strong/weak and directly/indirectly elected presidents and one pairing per office holder to control for institutional variations and individual presidents.

Presidential Activism in Practice

The in-depth analysis of presidential veto use also confirms my hypotheses and provides strong evidence that the hypothesised mechanisms actually insist. In particular, the mode of presidential election emerged as one of, if not the most important factor in explaining presidential activism. The popular mandate gained through direct elections gave presidents significantly more freedom in their actions but also required them to be more active to ensure their re-election – this was not only confirmed through my interviews with high-ranking presidential advisors but also evidenced by a number of presidents’ public statements. Indirectly elected presidents on the other hand acknowledged their dependence on parliament and therefore used their powers less often as not to interfere in the work of their principal. The relationship between president and government as well as the government’s strength in parliament were equally shown to be key determinants in presidents’ decisions to use their powers. Yet the qualitative also demonstrated that the size of presidents’ support base in parliament only becomes relevant when their party participates in government or when high thresholds are needed to override a veto. In addition, the qualitative analysis suggested an additional explanatory factor for presidential activism not included in my theoretical and statistical models – divisions within and between government parties provided additional opportunities for activism and could explain vetoes under otherwise unfavourable conditions.

My analysis of presidential activism in the appointment and censure of governments then takes a more exploratory approach and covers the entire period of observation (rather than just specific president-cabinet pairings). The results show some support for existing hypotheses in the literature but also call for re-thinking the use of non-partisan cabinet ministers as a proxy for presidential involvement. In particularly, non-partisans were not only often appointed without presidential involvement, but presidents were also more actively involved in placing co-partisans in the cabinet.

Studying Presidential Activism in Central and Eastern Europe and Beyond

Presidents still belong to the group of less-studied political actors. Yet even though countries differ greatly in how much power is vested in the presidency, presidents always possess at least some power and even the least powerful presidents play an important functional and procedural role in their political systems apart from ceremonial duties. Thus, studying presidential politics has a very strong practical relevance for any republican political system.

My book shows that theoretical approaches developed for presidents in other contexts (i.e. mostly the United States) ‘travelled’ almost effortlessly to Central and Eastern Europe. Several mechanisms of effect could be observed irrespective of institutional structure, highlighting the enormous potential of ‘comparative presidential studies’ beyond national contexts. Thus, I hope that my book is – together with the work of this blog and the recently formed ECPR Standing Group on Presidential Politics – will help to further develop this sub-discipline of political science to the extent that it becomes en par with long-established scholarship on the presidency of the United States.

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References & Notes:
Lieberman, E. S. (2005). Nested Analysis as a Mixed-method Strategy for Comparative Research. American Political Science Review, 99(3), 435–452.
Tavits, M. (2008). Presidents with Prime Ministers: Do Direct Elections Matter?. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Find out more details about the book and the new series Palgrave Studies in Presidential Politics  on the Palgrave website.

Czech Republic – Parties and candidates gear up for the 2018 presidential race

The second direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic are still about seven months away, yet already an illustrious field of candidates has assembled to oust the controversial incumbent Miloš Zeman. While the recent government crisis has delayed the nomination plans of some parties, the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2017 could speed up the process and either secure or endanger Zeman’s re-election.

‘Zeman Again 2018’ – Poster of President Zeman’s re-election campaign | Source: zemanznovu.cz

Since coming to office as the first directly elected Czech president in early 2013, Miloš Zeman has been far from uncontroversial. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government (which had no majority in parliament), he subsequently interfered in the formation of the current government of Bohuslav Sobotka (and continued to quarrel with the prime minister), was criticised for his uncritical attitude towards the Russian annexation of Crimea and various gaffes, rose to international prominence due to his xenophobic and islamophobic statements in the wake of the refugee crisis and is now known to many as the ‘European Donald Trump’ (whether this is a correct assessment or not is another question). As Zeman’s approval ratings have also fluctuated heavily since coming to office, this would appear as a great opportunity for a credible challenger to oust him from Prague Castle. However, given many national and international unknowns, the equation is not that simple.

To date, 12 individuals – including Zeman – have announced their plans to run for president, or at least their willingness pending support of parties. Only three candidates have gained the formal endorsement of parties represented in parliament so far, although this is necessary to stand for election. Similarly to the last election in 2013 and direct presidential election in neighbouring Slovakia (which introduced direct elections in 1999), there is a large number of intellectuals and writers – some of which derive their presidential credentials from their affiliation to the resistance against the former communist regime – and other independents. Some of these will surely fail to collect the required 50,000 signatures in support for their candidacy, yet their candidacy holds (if approved) at least the power to force the front-runners into a runoff. Czech voters have a penchant for unusual candidates – in 2013, composer and painter Vladimír Franz whose face is entirely covered by a tattoos, received a notable 6.84% of the vote.

At the moment, there are only two candidates that would appear to present a credible challenge to Zeman’s re-election: Jiří Drahoš, Chairman of the Czech Academy of Science who is not affiliated with any party but supported by the liberal-conservative TOP09, and Michal Horáček, an entrepreneur and writer who could receive backing from the Christian and Democratic Union (KDU-ČSL). In recent polls, both candidates achieve support similar to Zeman. Furthermore, contrary to other, independent candidates in the race they appear to promise a relatively well-formulated and comprehensive vision in their campaign. While both display a moderate level of euro-scepticism and could thus present themselves as a more centrist alternative to Zeman, Drahoš’s overall more socio-liberal views set him visible apart from Horáček, who like Zeman is opposing refugee quotas and has voiced his opposition to the building of mosques in the country.

Nevertheless, the governing Social Democrats (ČSSD) as well as the ANO 2011 party of recently dismissed Minister of Finance Andrej Babiš have yet to present their candidate. Interestingly, both parties have promised to hold primaries to select their presidential candidate and ballots are also going to include the option of supporting president Zeman. ANO 2011 leader Babiš has long had a positive relationship with the president while Prime Minister Sobotka (ČSSD) has more often than not struggled to come to an agreement with him Zeman (who once led the ČSSD himself). A decision is supposed to be taken before the parliamentary election, but was recently delayed due to the recent government crisis. If both parties are re-elected, they could attempt to enforce a more cooperative attitude of the president in exchange for their re-election support.

ANO and ČSSD are currently predicted to win ca. 40-45% of the vote and might once again form the government, although in reversed roles with Babiš as prime minister. As this would promise a more consensual style of government-president relations, even voters skeptical of Zeman may be tempted to vote for him over an opposition candidate. From the perspective of a political scientist, an unlikely alternative option would however be most interesting: Should another coalition of parties win the elections and form the government, these parties would have strong incentives to back a joint candidate and argue that only the election of their candidate would ensure a stable government without presidential interference, i.e. they could try to get a president into power on their parliamentary coattails.

Štěpán Drahokoupil – Czech Republic: Back to instability

This is a guest post by Štěpán Drahokoupil, Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague

The Czech Republic has experienced a period of remarkable political stability since the formation of the coalition government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in January 2014[1]. But the political events of last week once again reminded many people that governments lasting four years – the regular term of the Chamber of Deputies – are very rare. One of the main causes of the recent development is the tense relationship between Prime Minister Sobotka and President Zeman, but also weak political practices during the process of accepting resignations and nominations of Prime Ministers in the Czech Republic.

Here is a summary of what happened in Prague last week: Prime Minister Sobotka held a press conference on Tuesday, May 2, where he was expected to announce a recall of Andrej Babiš, the Minister of Finance, due to accusations of illicit financial dealings. Instead, Sobotka announced his resignation and therefore the end of the whole government. The ceremony, where the President was supposed to accept the resignation of PM, was scheduled for Thursday. However, Prime Minister Sobotka unexpectedly informed President Zeman that he first wished to consult with the president about the next steps without formally handing in his resignation. President Zeman then held the ceremony anyway, even though there was no actual resignation from the prime minister. What is even more remarkable (although not entirely unusual for Zeman) is that the president behaved very disrespectfully towards the prime minister. At the end of the week, Prime Minister Sobotka decided to recall only minister Babiš after all and took back the announced resignation of the whole government. The main reason for this U-turn seems to be that Sobotka did not receive an assurance from the President that he would accept the resignation of the whole government – as is the custom – instead of only the resignation of Prime Minister Sobotka.

After more than two decades of the independent Czech Republic there is no political consensus on the very rules of how to dissolve a government or how to nominate one. When previous Prime Ministers (Václav Klaus, Vladimír Špidla, Stanislav Gross, Mirek Topolánek and Petr Nečas) handed their resignations to the presidents of the day, their government was considered to have resigned. This time, the president openly questioned this political practice – Zeman argued that Sobotka’s resignation could be perceived as  the resignation of only the prime minister not of the whole government. This is also not the first time that President Zeman has interpreted constitutional stipulations and political practice in a way that has suited his own political interests. After the resignation of Prime Minister Nečas in 2013, President Zeman appointed a new government led by Jiří Rusnok. However, he did so without consulting the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the parliament) and therefore without securing a majority for the new govenrment. Subsequently, Jiří Rusnok and his government failed to win the vote of confidence, but the President refused to appoint another candidate for prime minister (although parliament had previously presented an alternative). Therefore the government of Prime Minister Rusnok was in office without the confidence of the lower chamber of the Parliament for several months and was replaced only after the general elections in 2013, which were won by the CSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka and his allies.

The current political crisis also demonstrates that when there is a stable government, based on a functioning coalition of political parties, the prime minister can successfully challenge the president and his/her actions – irrespective of whether they are warranted by any constitutional stipulations. However, when one government party becomes an ally of the president, it considerably strengthens the position of the head of state. It is well-known that the Minister of Finance, Andrej Babiš, and President Miloš Zeman have made a political pact, resulting in a difficult situation for Prime Minister Sobotka. Moreover, President Zeman is seen as the clear frontrunner in the next presidential elections in 2018, while Andrej Babiš’ political movement, ANO, is polling around 30% (in contrast with PM Sobotka’s Social Democrats at 15 %).  The next general elections are scheduled for late October of this year.

Bohuslav Sobotka has been in office for 40 months as of May 2017. In terms of time in office, this makes him the third most successful Prime Minister in the history of the Czech Republic. Only the current President Miloš Zeman and his predecessor President Václav Klaus finished their whole terms as Prime Ministers, both 48 months (see Table 1 below). No government of the Czech Republic has finished its four-year mandate since 2002. Thus, the recent development seems much more like a norm of Czech politics rather than an exceptional situation.

Table 1: Prime Ministers in office (1992 – 2017)

Prime Minister Term Number of months
Václav Klaus 1992 – 1996 48
Václav Klaus 1996 – 1998 18
Josef Tošovský 1998 6
Miloš Zeman 1998 – 2002 48
Vladimír Špidla 2002 – 2004 25
Stanislav Gross 2004 – 2005 8
Jiří Paroubek 2005 – 2006 17
Mirek Topolánek 2006 – 2007 4
Mirek Topolánek 2007 – 2009 26
Jan Fischer 2009 – 2010 14
Petr Nečas 2010 – 2013 36
Jiří Rusnok 2013 – 2014 6
Bohuslav Sobotka 2014 – 2017 40+ (as of May 2017)

The average time in office of Czech governments is less than two years. The shortest government lasted only four months and the longest four years. When we take into consideration that some of the cabinets were technocratic governments – headed by non-political figures because there was no political majority in the Chamber of Deputies – the “political governments” lasted on average 25.6 months and technocratic governments 8.7 months.

Table 2: Average time of governments, shortest and longest governments (1992 – 2013)

Average duration of all governments 21.3 months
Shortest government: PM Mirek Topolánek (2006 – 2007) 4 months
Longest governments: PM Václav Klaus (1992 – 1996), PM Miloš Zeman (1998 – 2002) 48 months
Average duration of “political governments” 25.6 months
Average duration of “governments of officials” 8.7 months

Note: Since the final number of months of PM Sobotka in office is still unknown, it is not part of the calculations.

Notes

[1] The government was formed by the Social Democrats (CSSD), the political movement ANO and the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL). It had 111 out of 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

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Štěpán Drahokoupil is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at Charles University. He graduated in political science from Charles University and his research focus is comparative political science, specifically political systems and the theory of democratic, hybrid and undemocratic regimes.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Czech Republic – National and international dimensions of president Zeman’s controversies

Czech president Milos Zeman has not shied away from controversy since taking office in spring 2013. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government which lacked support in parliament from the start and threatening interference in the formation of the current government, Zeman has drawn criticism for expletive-laden radio interviews, his support for Vladimir Putin and his comments on the refugee crisis. Especially the latter has put an international spotlight on the president so that gaffes and conflicts with the government increasingly create not only national controversies but also international repercussions.

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

President Zeman has long been a vocal opponent to accepting any of the refugees who have been coming into Europe during the last years. Although he is not alone in his general position among the presidents of the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), his recent proposal to send refugees to uninhabited Greek islands and send back all s-called ‘economic migrants’ was met with such international backlash that the Czech foreign minister saw itself forced to publicly state that these remarks did not represent the country’s policy.

Zeman has so far largely ignored the constitutional provisions and practice that put the government, rather than the president, in charge of foreign policy and has shown little tact on both the national and international stage. In a latest gaffe, Zeman prematurely announced Hynek Kmonicek as the new Czech ambassador to the United States. Kmonicek, who currently still serves as Zeman’s foreign policy advisor, had however not been approved by the United States yet. Zeman is already engaged in a personal feud with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Robert Shapiro, since Shapiro criticised the president’s pro-Putin stance (Zeman subsequently failed to invite the ambassador to a number of events at the presidential palace). Given that the current administration also disapproves of Zeman’s blanket criticism of the EU and most likely does not look favourably upon his openly voiced support for presidential candidates Donald Trump in the US and far-right Norbert Hofer in Austria, the president’s actions have put the entire appointment process in jeopardy. Zeman similarly revealed the name of yet another of his aides poised to become ambassador (Jindrich Forejt as Czech representative in the Vatican; yet given the Czech Republic’s reputation as [one of] the most atheist country in Europe this caused less friction internationally).

In another controversy, Zeman decided not to award a medal to Holocaust survivor and remembrance campaigner George Brady after his nephew, Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. The official position of the Czech Republic is to accept China’s claims on Tibet, but no punitive action has ever been taken against public officials who met with the Tibetan leader. Zeman on the other hand, has been an avid support of Chinese investment in the country and seems to have taken matters into his own hands after he was unsatisfied with the government’s response – in fact, it was the presidential office that released a statement distancing the government from minister Herman – who Zeman had previously personally requested not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Both the (potential) appointment of a Zeman allies to ambassadorial positions and the passivity in the Dalai Lama-episode highlights that the government does not possess the power to curb the president’s activism. After a slump in public opinion in late 2014, the Zeman has once again gained in popularity (not the least due to his populist stance in the refugee crisis) while the government’s support has been stagnant. Furthermore, a survey showed that following losses in local elections, many members of the main governing party CSSD look to Zeman (who was its chairman 1993-2001) for leadership rather than to Prime Minister Sobotka. Nevertheless, until now Zeman’s support base in the party is limited to grassroots members, rather than members of parliament so that his influence is still limited to some degree. Yet particularly looking forward to the next parliamentary elections in 2017 (to be held half a year before Zeman’s first term in office runs out) and the taking into account that Zeman has no official partisan representation in parliament, attempts to influence CSSD policy and strategy may increase and Zeman could try to use his popularity with CSSD members as leverage to assume an unofficial co-leadership role in the future and make sure the party supports his re-election bid in 2018.