The Czech Republic – Babiš’ new cabinet and symptoms of illiberal democracy

On 12th July 2018 the lengthy government formation process that had been taking place since the 2017 parliamentary elections finally came to an end. The second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

The protracted government formation process was a consequence of several factors including:

  • the fragmented Chamber of Deputies after the 2017 elections,
  • the presence of an anti-establishment, left-wing party (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) and an anti-establishment right-wing party (the Freedom and Direct Democracy movement),
  • a police investigation and other controversies in relation to the dominant figure of the largest parliamentary party, ANO 2011, Andrej Babiš, who was at the same time the only real candidate for prime ministership,
  • the reluctance of most of the other parties to collaborate with ANO 2011,
  • the role of President Miloš Zeman, who consistently supported Babiš as the new prime minister and who allowed no room for an alternative cabinet excluding Andrej Babiš.

The right-wing and liberal parliamentary parties ruled out the possibility of joining ANO 2011 in a new coalition, although Babiš called on the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to establish a two-party majority coalition. At the same time, however, Babiš did not want to seek support from the KSČM and SPD, two strongly Eurosceptical parties, undermining the hitherto Czech consensus on its clear pro-Western orientation. Thus, at first, Babiš attempted to form a minority ANO 2011 cabinet that was appointed by Miloš Zeman in December 2017. Not surprisingly, this cabinet failed to receive a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies.

In line with the constitution, Babiš’ cabinet remained in office as an acting cabinet until a new cabinet could be appointed. The Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), the winner of the 2013 elections (and major loser of the 2017 elections), was now encouraged as well as tempted to join Babiš’ cabinet for fear of being marginalized in the Chamber of Deputies. However, the party lacked a charismatic leader in contrast to Babiš, as well as clear and credible policies on a number of issues. The party, which found itself in a major leadership and policy crisis, faced a major dilemma. On the one hand, joining the government would bring it at least short-term benefits. On the other hand, joining the cabinet appeared highly risky. This is because, first, Babiš is still under police investigation due to allegations that his company unlawfully gained EU subsidies of about two million EUR in 2008. In addition, the European Anti Fraud Office’s report (which was leaked to the press) confirmed that Babiš was directly involved in the fraud. Second, Babiš, the Minister of Finance in the 2014-2017 cabinet, skilfully communicated with the media to claim credit for government successes, while shifting blame on the social democrats for government failures

The ČSSD was badly divided on the issue of whether to join the cabinet with ANO 2011. The February party congress gave no definitive answer to this question, although party leaders were inclined to support the government option, and the party decided to hold an intra-party referendum. Even before the referendum result was announced, the ČSSD had embarked on negotiations with ANO 2011. President Zeman, who still has considerable influence over the ČSSD, encouraged the party to join Babiš’ cabinet. The referendum result gave the party a green light to carry on the negotiations with ANO 2011. However, the first round of talks ended in failure in April, as ANO 2011 proved unwilling to allow the ČSSD to take the seat of the Ministry of Interior, an important position controlling the police and indirectly affecting the investigation of Mr. Babiš and his alleged EU subsidy fraud. The ČSSD leaders, the party chairman Jan Hamáček and his deputy Jiří Zimola, visited President Zeman, who – according to some journalists – advised the ČSSD to insist on their requirements (including the position of the Minister of Interior).  Zeman was strongly interested in the success of the government formation with Mr. Babiš as Prime Minister, given the fact that he had consistently supported this option since the 2017 elections. The negotiations between the ANO 2011 and ČSSD resumed and both parties agreed on a minority coalition cabinet that was appointed by President Zeman in June 2018. In addition, Andrej Babiš negotiated an external support for the coalition provided by the KSČM.

The reputation of the newly appointed cabinet was tainted by the resignation of two ministers when the media found out that their university master’s theses were plagiarized. However, the most significant event was Zeman’s refusal to appoint a ČSSD nominee for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Poche. Zeman argued that Poche, currently an MEP, held a pro-immigration policy, which was unacceptable for Zeman, Babiš, and majority of the Czech population. Commentators speculated that this publicly announced reason was a mere pretext for the real cause of the refusal: President Zeman was resolved to demonstrate his power over the ČSSD and his influence over the cabinet as a whole. Babiš, having no interest in complicating the government formation whatsoever, did not insist on Poche and accepted Zeman’s position.

There has been a political as well as academic debate as to whether the Czech president has the right to refuse the Prime Minister’s nominee for a minister. There is a consensus that the president has no such right, but given the fact that Prime Minister did not push for Poche and did not wish to submit a complaint to the Constitutional Court, there is no way to force Zeman to appoint Mr. Poche. Instead, both President Zeman and the Prime Minister Babiš expect another nominee from the ČSSD camp. Although this move was an act of political humiliation for the ČSSD, its leaders have so far been unable to suggest a solution and the ČSSD’s chairman Jan Hamáček temporarily took the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs alongside the position of the Minister of Interior. The ČSSD announced it would solve the problem only after the October municipal elections. As stated above, the second Babiš cabinet won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in July 2018, so the Czech Republic finally has a fully-fledged cabinet after some 10 months.

In terms of President Zeman’s power over the government formation process, he undoubtedly played an important role. Whereas in the case of the first (unsuccessful) Babiš cabinet, Zeman’s role can be assessed as a notary, perhaps even regulator (given Zeman’s clear preferences and active support for Mr. Babiš), his role increased with the second Babiš cabinet and he can be classified as “co-designer”, because Zeman openly, consistently and strongly insisted that Babiš would be the new prime minister, blocking any alternative cabinets. In addition, he rejected the appointment of Mr. Poche. Also, the Minister of Agriculture, Miroslav Toman (although formally a ČSSD member), was clearly Zeman’s man demonstrating the president’s influence over the cabinet.

Against the background of the government formation process, one should not overlook less noticeable, yet highly important, trends in the Czech politics. First, the Communists gained a direct influence over the government for the first time after 1989. (Mr. Babiš was also a Communist Party member as well as a registered co-worker of the Czechoslovak Secret Police before 1989). The KSČM remains outside the government, but provided its support for the cabinet in the July vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies in exchange for a couple of policy requirements including passing a law on referendums, an increase in the minimal wage or the taxation of Church restitution. (The law on Church restitution was approved in 2012 in order to compensate for the nationalization of Church property after the 1948 Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia). In sum, KSČM’s direct influence on the cabinet has a great symbolic importance putting to an end one of the major constants of the post-1989 politics.

Second, whereas in the post-1989 era a strong pro-Western consensus, including the EU as well as NATO membership, prevailed both in the Czech society and political elites as the only reasonable and legitimate foreign policy, this consensus is currently being undermined, especially by the KSČM, the SPD and also by Miloš Zeman, who is well-known for his openly pro-Russian and pro-Chinese policy. Andrej Babiš, is, however, a pragmatic politician advocating a firm Czech membership in the EU, yet also pursuing a strict anti-immigration policy.

Third, clear illiberal tendencies (both in terms of rhetoric and actions) have appeared in the Czech Republic, thus resembling other countries in the region (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary). Notably, President Zeman can be blamed for this negative trend: Zeman is known for flattering the authoritarian regime in Russia and China, attacking the independent and quality media, attending the KSČM’s party congress, and sympathizing with xenophobic forces in the Czech Republic. To be sure, other actors responsible for the illiberal tendencies can be mentioned, two parliamentary parties, KSČM and SPD, and the Prime Minister Mr. Babi, who has tried to remove some checks and balances, e.g. by proposing the abolition of the upper parliamentary Chamber and who is the de facto owner of a huge business and media empire.

The Czech Republic is currently awaiting October municipal and Senate elections. The municipal elections in large cities, as well as the Senate elections, are considered to be a test of public support for the major parliamentary parties (which are almost non-existent in most of smaller municipalities) and in turn for (il) liberal democracy in the country.

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