Czech Presidential Politics in the Fall of 2018

There are two essential factors which facilitate understanding of the real power of Czech presidents and which make them relatively weak in relation to the government or parliament. First, none of them has managed to create a solid and strong party backing in the parliament.  This holds true also for Miloš Zeman, who has repeatedly attempted (and failed) to form a presidential party.[1] Thus, the October municipal and Senate elections[2] and their results had no specific and direct consequences for President Zeman. Second, the Czech president is endowed with few significant powers. Probably the most important one is the power to appoint the Prime Minister and, on the basis of his proposal, other members of government[3]. Hence, once the second cabinet led by Andrej Babiš had been appointed in July 2018, President Zeman had a much smaller influence on Czech governmental as well as parliamentary politics.

Despite these stable features of the Czech democratic regime, Miloš Zeman has constantly been able to create a stir in the Czech politics, an ability attributed to him both by his supporters and critics. First, even though Babiš’ cabinet was appointed and won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, the President kept influencing the cabinet’s composition, blocking Miroslav Poche, the Social Democratic (the junior coalition partner’s) nominee for the position of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Poche was refused by Zeman, officially because of the former’s positive stance to EU migration quotas. However, there were rumors that other reasons might have played a role in the rejection. For example, Poche supported Zeman’s rival, Jiří Drahoš, in the 2018 presidential contest. In addition, Zeman’s move was a tool to humiliate and weaken the Social Democratic party[4].

Be it as it may, Prime Minister Babiš did not insist on Poche, as he did not want to risk a conflict with President Zeman. As a result, the Social Democrats tacitly gave in and nominated another person – Tomáš Petříček. This was a surprising choice, because Petříček was Poche’s assistant without much political experience. Thus, only after three months, Czech political elites managed to provide a full-time leader for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Until that time, the ČSSD’s leader, and minister of the interior, Jan Hamáček had been in temporary charge.

Second, seeking his own foreign policy, to a large extent independently of the cabinet, President Zeman has made many other politicians uneasy. Zeman kept emphasizing an orientation to the East, notably to Russia and China, promoting “economic diplomacy” over human rights issues (the one-time the flagship of Czech foreign policy). This policy is to a certain extent consistent with Zeman’s predecessor, Václav Klaus, but is in stark contrast to Václav Havel, who is widely remembered as a vociferous advocate of human rights anywhere on the globe. Despite the fact that occasionally presidents and governments clashed over foreign policy issues, the major pillars of the Czech foreign policy of the 1990s were clear and major political representatives were consistent in supporting them: pro-Western, pro-EU orientation as well as promoting human rights issues. However, these pillars of the Czech foreign policy have been undermined by practical steps taken by both branches of the Czech executive over the last decade or so. Miloš Zeman is one of the most influential proponents of Russian interests in Europe, for example, advocating Russia’s position towards the affair of poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, calling for lifting anti-Russia sanctions, supporting the Russian state corporation, Rosatom, and its effort to win a tender to  enlarge the Czech nuclear power plants.

Whereas Zeman has rarely been accepted by Western political leaders, he has repeatedly visited Russia. Zeman has also been to China four times, meeting top Chinese leaders, supporting their idea of reviving the Silk Road. It seems that this clear Eastern orientation, legitimizing authoritarian regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere, is not sufficiently balanced by other Czech foreign policy makers, some of whom take a similar position, whereas others are pragmatic and lack any orientation in foreign policy issues (such as Andrej Babiš). All in all, Czech foreign policy has been incomprehensible, especially vis-á-vis the EU. Thus, the person of the Minister of Foreign Affairs proves to be of key importance for the future of Czech foreign policy and its major goals, notably in the era of great debates on the future of the EU following Brexit.

Tomáš Petříček outlined the goals of his efforts as follows: “I would like to clearly delineate our country’s position in the European Union and the wider transatlantic area. Our core priorities are that our foreign policy has continuity, that it is consensual and that it is coherent.” This position was probably a reaction to varying standpoints on Czech foreign policy. This lack of consensus was visible within the executive over the past year and which made the Czech foreign policy unclear. As far as the migration crisis is concerned, Petříček adopted a very similar stance to Prime Minister Babiš: instead of letting refugees come to Europe, Petříček claims that migrants should be supported in their countries of origin: “We can do more in countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to help refugees and improve their living conditions in refugee camps. Our target should be to stabilize the countries they are fleeing in order to ensure they can stay in their home countries.”

In general, the appointment of Tomáš Petříček as the Minister of Foreign Affairs was a clear disappointment for many observers, because Petříček is an inexperienced minister whose views on foreign policy had not been known in public before he became the Minister. Petříček’s efforts to take the initiative as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and set the agenda will probably be very difficult given his lack of experience, lack of political authority, lack of authority of his own party (which is also divided on key foreign policy issues) and also with regard to the assertive position of Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš, the two dominant figures in Czech politics and who are likely to outshine Petříček in Czech foreign policy.

Third, the Czech Republic celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Czechoslovak state, which was established in 1918. The celebrations and various public events commemorating the ups and downs of the Czechoslovak and Czech state peaked with the traditional state decorations ceremony at Prague Castle. This was a special moment to award distinguished citizens, historical figures (honored in memoriam), artists, sportsmen and like. The ceremony was tainted by a bitter dispute between president Zeman and his opponents. This dispute dates back to origins of Zeman’s presidency when he came into conflict with various people, notably with academics and presidents of several Czech universities who were not invited to the state decorations ceremony. In addition, a few leading political figures were not invited either, whereas others rejected to attend the ceremony in protest against – what they labeled as – a private Zeman party. The dispute was also accompanied by a critique of persons who were decorated. Besides uncontroversial personalities (such as anti-Nazi fighters or Olympic gold medalists), critics reproached President Zeman for decorating his close friends, people who collaborated with the Communist secret police, or controversial businesspeople.

It is highly unlikely that Miloš Zeman will cease to be a provocative and controversial politician, constantly attracting media attention and giving cause to anger. On the other hand, the Czech presidents are generally trusted political figures. Even Miloš Zeman, who has always been a polarizing figure in Czech society, enjoys support/trust of about half of the Czech population, much more than the government or parliamentary chambers (but less than mayors or local governments)[5]. More than four years remain until the end of his second presidential mandate. Only health problems, which the media often speculate about, may become an effective stop to his political style.

 Notes

[1] For details see Brunclík, Miloš, and Michal Kubát. 2018. Semi-presidentialism, Parliamentarism and Presidents: Presidential Politics in Central Europe. London and New York: Routledge.

[2] Several Zeman’s rivals from the 2018 presidential contest were elected senators, such as Jiří Drahoš, Pavel Fischer or Marek Hilšer.

[3] Art. 68 of the Constitution of the Czech Republic

[4] Zeman was once the party’s chairman and even prime minister between 1998 and 2002. However, since a significant portion of social democratic MPs did not support Zeman in the 2003 presidential elections, Zeman’s relationship to his party changed for the worse and this event has plagued their relationship since then.

[5] Červenka, Jan. 2018. Confidence in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation. October 2018. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

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