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.