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.

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