Since coming into office, president Miloš Zeman has not shied away from controversy. He made headlines early on in his presidency when he appointed the Rusnok government despite an evident lack of support in parliament and a parliamentary counter-proposal. While this had only little impact on his public standing so far, he recently had to face increasing criticism for his statements and behaviour in office, and experienced a dramatic drop in public approval.
Since Vaclav Havel, Czech presidents have given live radio Interviews from their residence in Lany. On these occasions they discussed current political developments and used the opportunity to highlight issues close to their heart. During an interview in early November, Zeman was asked about the Russian dissident punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ while talking about the policies of Vladimir Putin. Yet rather than discussing the latter, Zeman provided Czech translations of the band’s name and a number of their songs using a wide range of profanities. Following the interview, the radio station not only received hundreds of complaints but Zeman’s words were also strongly criticised by politicians across the political spectrum as being inappropriate for a head of state. While Zeman and a number of other prominent Czech politicians have been known to use a more ‘colourful’ language at times, the incident is so far unique.
Following the incident, Zeman and his statements came under closer scrutiny by media and the public, leading to further dissatisfaction and criticism. During his trip to China only a few days prior to the controversial interview, Zeman had declared that he believed Taiwan to be part of China (which contradicts the government’s stance) and said on Chinese TV that he had ‘come to learn how to stabilise society’. Furthermore, he returned from his trip using the private jet of a Czech businessman rather than an official aircraft. While the latter might not seem too controversial for the outsider, the fact that the Czech Republic has long battled with political corruption and flights sponsored by businessmen also played a (admittedly less important) role in the resignation of German president Christian Wulff due to corruption allegations highlights that this was more than just a ‘faux pas’ (which Zeman – as a former Prime Minister – should have known to avoid).
Another part of the public discussion of Zeman’s behaviour was (and still is) his stance on the Ukrainian crisis. Among others, Zeman appeared on Russian TV to criticise the EU sanctions, proposed the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine (subordination of foreign & defence policy to Russia), invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to Prague, and spoke up against the prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership. While the latter is also the German position, Zeman’s attitude is not shared by the generally very Russo-sceptic Czech population. It is therefore no surprise that protests against Zeman erupted at celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’. During his speech, he was greeted by a chorus of whistles and booing, and protesters threw eggs at him (one of which hit German president Joachim Gauck who was there as an honorary guest). During a recent trip to Southern Moravia, Zeman was similarly greeted by protesters.
According to a recent recent poll by CVVM trust in the president has been falling sharply and to the lowest level since Zeman took office (with his previous low occurring after the 2013 parliamentary elections). Furthermore, the poll was conducted during mid-November and does not take into account the subsequent events and protests. Analysts therefore expect a further drop in the next poll which is being conducted at the moment. The government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with which Zeman is in cohabitation) benefits from the protests to some degree. Nevertheless, the fact he openly contradicts government policy has become a problem and threatens the government’s credibility abroad. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has therefore asked Zeman to coordinate his speeches with the government (in this context see also my recent post about presidential speeches Germany). It is unlikely that Zeman will bow to the government’s pressure in this regard. Nevertheless, once the end of his term comes closer (he still has more than three years in office left), he might have to change his behaviour to please his voters and be elected for second term.