Czech president Milos Zeman has not shied away from controversy since taking office in spring 2013. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government which lacked support in parliament from the start and threatening interference in the formation of the current government, Zeman has drawn criticism for expletive-laden radio interviews, his support for Vladimir Putin and his comments on the refugee crisis. Especially the latter has put an international spotlight on the president so that gaffes and conflicts with the government increasingly create not only national controversies but also international repercussions.
President Zeman has long been a vocal opponent to accepting any of the refugees who have been coming into Europe during the last years. Although he is not alone in his general position among the presidents of the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), his recent proposal to send refugees to uninhabited Greek islands and send back all s-called ‘economic migrants’ was met with such international backlash that the Czech foreign minister saw itself forced to publicly state that these remarks did not represent the country’s policy.
Zeman has so far largely ignored the constitutional provisions and practice that put the government, rather than the president, in charge of foreign policy and has shown little tact on both the national and international stage. In a latest gaffe, Zeman prematurely announced Hynek Kmonicek as the new Czech ambassador to the United States. Kmonicek, who currently still serves as Zeman’s foreign policy advisor, had however not been approved by the United States yet. Zeman is already engaged in a personal feud with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Robert Shapiro, since Shapiro criticised the president’s pro-Putin stance (Zeman subsequently failed to invite the ambassador to a number of events at the presidential palace). Given that the current administration also disapproves of Zeman’s blanket criticism of the EU and most likely does not look favourably upon his openly voiced support for presidential candidates Donald Trump in the US and far-right Norbert Hofer in Austria, the president’s actions have put the entire appointment process in jeopardy. Zeman similarly revealed the name of yet another of his aides poised to become ambassador (Jindrich Forejt as Czech representative in the Vatican; yet given the Czech Republic’s reputation as [one of] the most atheist country in Europe this caused less friction internationally).
In another controversy, Zeman decided not to award a medal to Holocaust survivor and remembrance campaigner George Brady after his nephew, Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. The official position of the Czech Republic is to accept China’s claims on Tibet, but no punitive action has ever been taken against public officials who met with the Tibetan leader. Zeman on the other hand, has been an avid support of Chinese investment in the country and seems to have taken matters into his own hands after he was unsatisfied with the government’s response – in fact, it was the presidential office that released a statement distancing the government from minister Herman – who Zeman had previously personally requested not to meet with the Dalai Lama.
Both the (potential) appointment of a Zeman allies to ambassadorial positions and the passivity in the Dalai Lama-episode highlights that the government does not possess the power to curb the president’s activism. After a slump in public opinion in late 2014, the Zeman has once again gained in popularity (not the least due to his populist stance in the refugee crisis) while the government’s support has been stagnant. Furthermore, a survey showed that following losses in local elections, many members of the main governing party CSSD look to Zeman (who was its chairman 1993-2001) for leadership rather than to Prime Minister Sobotka. Nevertheless, until now Zeman’s support base in the party is limited to grassroots members, rather than members of parliament so that his influence is still limited to some degree. Yet particularly looking forward to the next parliamentary elections in 2017 (to be held half a year before Zeman’s first term in office runs out) and the taking into account that Zeman has no official partisan representation in parliament, attempts to influence CSSD policy and strategy may increase and Zeman could try to use his popularity with CSSD members as leverage to assume an unofficial co-leadership role in the future and make sure the party supports his re-election bid in 2018.