Tag Archives: Czech Republic; president; prime minister

Czech President: between Adoration and Impeachment

The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, is an undoubtedly remarkable political figure who frequently faces fierce criticism because of his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy, a staunch support for Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, awarding state decorations to other controversial figures, and many other matters. Mr. Zeman’s provocative political style as well as his controversial policies are now well-known abroad.C

Despite these controversies, president Zeman remains a highly popular figure in the Czech politics.[1] The President as an individual person, as well as an institution remains the most trusted figure among top Czech politicians and constitutional bodies. Miloš Zeman as a political person is trusted by 48 per cent of the population, although 46 per cent respondents claim that they do not trust him.[2] The data corroborates one peculiar and at the same time constant feature of the Czech president since his was elected to the office in 2013: his highly divisive political style that tends to polarize the Czech society. Zeman, as a constitutional body, was trusted by 53 per cent of respondents, which is more than other top constitutional bodies. Only local government, local mayors and presidents of regional councils score better as far as political institutions in the Czech Republic are concerned.[3]

Although the president enjoys considerable levels of popular support, Miloš Zeman faces a risk of impeachment. In January 2019, a group of senators have announced their intention to file a constitutional charge against Zeman for gross violation of the Constitution. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that the president will be impeached because of two major factors. First, the Czech constitution makes it procedurally extremely difficult to impeach president. The procedure was changed in 2012, together with the amendment that introduced the popular election of the president.[4] The art. 65 of the constitution allows the Senate, with the consent of the Chamber of Deputies, to file a constitutional charge against the President for high treason, gross violation of the Constitution before the Constitutional Court. In order to approve the filing of the constitutional charge, the consent of a three-fifths majority of the votes of present senators is required. In addition, in order to approve of the charge, the Chamber of Deputies is required to pass it by a three-fifths majority of all deputies. Second, several political parties, notably the Communists (KSČM), the populist right-wing party called Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), but also Prime Minister’s own party ANO 2011 and the Social Democrats do not support the ideas. These parties enjoy a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, which makes the impeachment much more complicated and burdensome, as the Chamber may veto the process.

It should be noted that the notion of impeachment is not a novelty in the Czech politics. There were several initiatives to impeach president Klaus and Zeman, but so far only in one case did the charges eventually reach the Constitutional Court. Other initiatives were shipwrecked in the Senate. For example, in 2004, Senator Zdeněk Bárta sought to impeach President Klaus for rejecting to propose a further candidate for judge in the Constitutional Court, thus putting the Constitutional Court in danger of soon becoming unable to pass decisions.[5] In March 2013 the Senate filed a charge against the president Klaus for high treason. The charge included five delicts: (1) inactivity in the process of ratifying the Additional Protocol of the European Social Charter; (2) not accomplishing the ratification process of the Treaty Establishing the European Stability Mechanism; (3) the highly controversial amnesty issued in January 2013; (4) not proposing further candidates for judge in the Constitutional Court; and (5) not respecting a court’s decision to appoint a judge of a district court. However, the Constitutional Court did not decide, arguing that Klaus’s mandate was already over.[6] In Zeman’s case various politicians, notably Senators, have considered Zeman’s impeachment for several years. So far, there were three major initiatives to impeach President Zeman. None of them reached the Constitutional Court. First, in 2015, the Senate was petitioned to trigger impeachment against Zeman for high treason. Petitioners claimed that Zeman’s views on EU’s sanctions against Russia for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in Ukraine indicated that Zeman “acted in the interest of Vladimir Putin’s regime rather than in the interest of the Czech Republic and its allies”. Second, in 2017, Zeman displayed his strong dislike to recall Mr. Babiš, the then Minister of Finance in Bohuslav Sobotka’s cabinet. Zeman’s reluctance to comply with the Prime Minister Sobotka’s request would certainly contradict the constitution (art. 74).[7] However, after a strong pressure, Zeman eventually gave in and accept Babiš’s resignation.[8] Finally and very recently (in January 2019) a group of senators accused Zeman of gross violation of the Constitution. Their charge is not ready yet, but it will likely include a number of accusations. This initiative was triggered by a scandal related to efforts of the president and his chancellor to interfere in the courts. The initiator of the charge, senator Václav Láska, claimed that this scandal was the last straw: “When you take only individual actions of Mr. President, you may come to the conclusion that on their own they are on the edge of Constitutionality…But when you describe 20 such actions together it gives you a ground for a statement that the President does that on purpose, that his intention is to violate the Constitution, that he does not respect the Constitution”.

So, what were other problematic steps of the president that made senators prepare the constitutional charge against the president? Critics argue that Zeman is not defending the Czech national interests, nor his steps are in line with the Czech membership in the EU and NATO and its values, and that the president’s steps in foreign policy clearly contradict Czech foreign policy formulated by the government. Zeman is generally considered a Russian ally and the following cases support the above statement.

Zeman also vociferously defended Russian position in the well-known affair of poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal and tended to repeat Kremlin arguments.[9] In 2016, a Russian citizen, Yevgeni Nikulin was detained by the Czech police. Nikulin was considered to be a Russian hacker who had attacked US social networks. Both USA and Russia intensively pressured the Czech Republic to extradite Nikulin. Zeman was lobbying for Nikulin’s extradition to Russia. However, the Czech Ministry of Justice eventually extradited Nikulin to the USA in 2018.

Another scandal is related to Zeman’s fierce criticism of an annual report issued by the Czech Security Intelligence Service (BIS), which among others said that Russian and Chinese spies in the country were working out of their embassies in Prague. Not only that Zeman argued that the BIS failed to provide evidence of specific Russian or Chinese espionage activities, but also he accused the BIS of failing to uncover any Islamic “terrorists” in the Czech Republic. On the top of that, Zeman described the report as “gibberish” or “blather” and the intelligence officers as “bozos.” His clearly pro-Chinese and pro-Russian position was well displayed in at least three other affairs.  In 2018 the National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NUKIB) issued a warning report arguing that Huawei’s products might be misused by China. This report is in line with the fact that growing number of companies, governments and academic institutions have called into question Huawei‘s close links to the Chinese state and its espionage activities. Thus, after an attack on the Czech Security Intelligence Service, Zeman attacked another Czech security institution and criticized the report. He accused NUKIB as well as BIS of having threatened Czech economic interests in China. As usual, his criticism was highly insulting, when he said that the security institutions issued their reports „either out of stupidity or for money“. Zeman argued that China was seeking economic retaliation measures. Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government, as well as opposition politicians, rejected Zeman’s criticism.

These affairs and conflicts, together with Zeman’s constant critique of media, delegitimizing the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tomáš Petříček, who is a clearly pro-Western, pro-European politician, clearly indicate symptoms of democratic erosion in the Czech Republic.[10] In other words, a battle over liberal democratic principles in the Czech Republic started a couple of years ago (Zeman is not the only person to blame for this negative trend). It remains to be seen whether democratic erosion will be sponsored only by the Czech president and two anti-establishment political parties, the KSČM and SPD, or whether other political and constitutional actors become infected with illiberal policies and values.

[1] For details see Červenka, Jan. 2019. Public Opinion on Performance of Miloš Zeman – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[2] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Popularity of Top Politicians – January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[3] Červenka, Jan. 2019. Confidence in constitutional institutions and satisfaction with the political situation. January 2019. Praha: CVVM. (Full text is available in Czech only).

[4] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 94-95.

[5] L. Kopeček, Václav Klaus. Politická biografie (Brno: Barrister & Principal, 2012).

[6] Ústavní soud. “Ústavní soud zastavil řízení o velezradě bývalého prezidenta Václava Klause – aktualizováno.” Brno: Ústavní soud. (Full text is available in Czech only);Brunclík and Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe, 94-95

[7] „The President of the Republic shall recall members of the government if the Prime Minister so proposes“.

[8] M. Brunclík and M. Kubát, Parliamentarism, Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2019), 82.

[9] M. Krejčí, „The Czech President searching for the Novichok in the Czech Republic“. European Values, Kremlin Watch Report, 2018. Full text.

[10] S. Levitsky and D. Ziblatt and, How Democracies Die (New York, Crown, 2018).