Czech Republic – A new government and the evolution of semi-presidentialism

On 29 January 2014, 95 days since the parliamentary elections of October 2013, president Miloš Zeman appointed a new government under the leadership of Czech Social Democrat Chairman Bohuslav Sobotka, thus ending the longest tenure of an acting government in recent Czech history. While the government still has to pass a vote of confidence in the assembly until the end of February, this is rather seen as a formality given the coalition’s 111 votes in the 200 seat assembly – a comparatively comfortable majority for Czech conditions.

President Miloš Zeman appoints prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka | © Czech Presidential Office 2014

President Zeman eventually did not refuse to appoint any of the candidates presented to him by the coalition parties, yet the past months were filled with speculations about the president’s potential interference. These were mainly fueled by the fact that Zeman had in an unprecedented move already appointed the last government of Jiri Rusnok without consulting parties (the government subsequently failed to win a vote of confidence and resigned) as well as Zeman’s insistence that he need not appoint all candidates proposed to him. In particular, Zeman objected to the candidates for the ministries of interior, industry/trade, and human rights/legislative council. While his objections to individual candidates were only made public in early January, Zeman previously announced that he would require lustration certificates from each candidate (mainly aimed at preventing ANO 2011 leader Andrej Babiš from taking office) and that he would not appoint a candidate without relevant experience.

The question is now in how far this activism can be attributed to Zeman’s popular mandate (from 1993-2013 Czech presidents were elected by parliament) and why he eventually chose to acquiesce with the prime minister’s wishes. Many commentators have pointed out the importance of direct presidential elections for explaining the president’s activism (particularly in connection with the appointment of the Rusnok government in summer 2013) but Zeman himself has not yest publicly spoken about the increased popular legitimacy of the presidency. Given that he has been in office for less than a year (as well as the personal dislike/feud between former party colleagues Sobotka and Zeman), a definite answer on this question needs to wait. Nevertheless, the fact that Zeman has voiced his intention to interfere so publicly suggests that he is very conscious of the signals that he has to send to his electorate.

A clearer answer can be given to the question of why Zeman eventually accepted all candidates for government office, First, Sobotka has already announced that the coalition was intending to limit the president’s powers – by refraining from interference Zeman now avoids a quick implementation or (in case the coalition cannot mobilise a constitutional majority) clarification of his only vaguely defined powers by the constitutional court (which would likely rule in favour of government and parliament).

Even if Zeman continues his current level of activity, this does not mean that the system will necessarily evolve in a way that gives the president a more prominent decision. After neighbouring Slovakia introduced popular presidential elections in 1999, its first incumbent Rudolf Schuster also showed a significantly increased level of activism. Yet faced with a determined parliament and government, he (and his successor) eventually failed to change the (parliamentary) logic of Slovak politics.

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Composition of Sobotka I

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_sobotka1

In terms of portfolio allocation, ANO 2011 is slightly underrepresented but as a new party likely has had to pay an apprentice’s premium. Nevertheless, it receives the offices of first deputy PM, finance (both for controversial party leader Andrej Babiš), and justice.

Prime Minister: Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD, male, 42)
First Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Finance: Andrej Babiš (ANO 2011, male, 59)
Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Science + Research: Pavel Bělobrádek (KDU-ČSL, male, 37)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD, male, 57)
Minister of Interior Milan Chovanec (ČSSD, male, 44)
Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Michaela Marksová-Tominová (ČSSD, female, 44)
Minister of Industry and Trade: Jan Mládek (ČSSD, male, 53)
Minister of Health: Svatopluk Němeček (ČSSD, male, 41)
Minister of Justice: Helena Válková (non-partisan/ANO 2011, female, 63)
Minister of Education, Youth and Sport: Marcel Chládek (ČSSD, male, 45)
Minister of Defence: Martin Stropnický (ANO 2011, male, 57)
Minister of Transport: Antonín Prachař (ANO 2011, male, 51)
Minister for Regional Development: Věra Jourová (ANO 2011, female, 49)
Minister of the Environment: Richard Brabec (ANO 2011, male, 47)
Minister of Agriculture: Marian Jurečka (KDU-ČSL, male, 32)
Minister of Culture: Daniel Herman (KDU-ČSL, male, 50)
Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities: Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (ČSSD, male, 44)

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