Tag Archives: intra-executive politics

Czech Republic – National and international dimensions of president Zeman’s controversies

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.

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

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.

 

Czech Republic – President Zeman vs Prime Minister Sobotka once again

Czech president Milos Zeman and his remarks about refugees (including those in his Christmas message) have made continuously made headlines over the last months, earning him the reputation of  being ‘Europe’s answer to Donald Trump‘. At the same time and relatively unnoticed by international media, the ongoing conflict between Zeman and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with whose coalition government Zeman is in cohabitation) has recently bubbled up once again. After Zeman’s activism was previously less than well-received by the public, he is now using the opportunities created by his recent rise in popularity and upcoming local elections to launch another effort to weaken the Prime Minister and his government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (l.) and President Milos Zeman

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (l.) and President Milos Zeman (r.).

The refugee crisis continues to dominate not only European but also Czech politics, creating a divide within both the public and politics on how to deal with it. On the side stands president Zeman whose notorious anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric find resonance in a significant parts of the population (in a recent opinion poll ca. two thirds agreed with his stance) and has contributed to the rise of a number of anti-immigration groups. Anti-immigration protests and attacks on a refugee centre culminated in a new climax over the weekend.  Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka from the Social Democratic CSSD (which Zeman incidentally chaired 1992-2001 but left in 2007) finds himself on the other side of the conflict. Although his government – just like his Polish and Slovak counterparts – also rejects the suggested quota system (the Czech Republic currently has so far only offered to shelter 400 refugees) and Sobotka is wary of the effects public opinion, he has so far presented the voice of reason, condemning any violence and accusing Zeman of destabilising society.

The refugee issue is still gaining in momentum, yet have not yet translated in an increased leverage for Zeman or sufficient political pressure on the government to resign, not the least due to the fact that coalition partners (and even some opposition parties) have so far been relatively united in fending off Zeman’s attacks and criticising his remarks.  President and Prime Minister clashed on recalling the country’s ambassador to Norway as a reaction to the ongoing discussions with the Norwegian government about the decisions of its child welfare service ‘Barneverent’ (which has placed several children of Central East European parents into foster care, allegedly without sufficient justification or examination). Although the issue triggered a few demonstrations, it has not had much of an additional impact in Zeman’s favour (who already excluded the Norwegian ambassador from some events in the past).

It appears that Zeman is therefore attempting another strategy alongside of attacking the government on its policies (see also below). Specifically, CSSD insiders talk about the possibility of a second ‘Lany coup’ (Lany is the president’s summer residence) – a renewed attempt to topple the Prime Minister with the help of Sobotka’s CSSD-internal opponents. A similar plan failed in autumn 2013 after the last parliamentary elections, but as Zeman is now apparently supported by Michal Hasek – first deputy chairman of the CSSD one of the regional governors that the party would like to see re-elected later this year – the situation has changed. Furthermore, Sobotka and his government currently face accusations of incompetence after his personal email account was hacked by a far-right group who have now started to publish the emails – primarily those relating to the government’s response to the refugee crisis.

It is crucial to note here that Zeman himself has no representation in parliament and thus lacks one of the crucial means for presidents to indirectly exert political influence. The ‘Party for Citzens’ Rights – Zemanites’ (SPOZ) which he founded in 2009 failed to enter parliament in 2013 and does not play an important political role (it has also since rid itself of ‘Zemanites’-suffix). As a former member and chairman of the CSSD, he maintains good contacts to some parts of the party and is still admired by some but there are no ‘natural allies’ for him among the governing or opposition parties. His strategy therefore appears to weaken the CSSD to the point that he is granted some degree of influence (which would likely include the removal of Sobotka to whom Zeman still attributes blame for not becoming president in the indirect elections in 2003). The fact that regional assembly and Senate elections will be held in October hereby plays out in Zeman’s favour. Should he continue to gain popularity at the expense of the government, Sobotka and the CSSD will have to find new ways of dealing with the president – which may include some compromises with Zeman – or risk an even greater electoral defeat in the ‘mid-term’ elections.

Serbia – Will the outcome of the snap election affect intra-executive politics?

A snap general election was held in Serbia on March 16th. President Nikolic’s Serbian Progressive Party obtained a strong parliament majority and its current leader, Aleksandar Vucic, is sure to secure the prime minister position. The snap election could also affect the intra-executive relation between the president and the new prime minister, due to the latter’s extensive authority over the government and ruling party.

According to the results reported by the National Electoral Commission based on nearly all votes counted, four electoral lists passed the 5% threshold necessary to get into parliament:

  • SNS (Serbian Progressive Party) – led coalition: 48.34% of the vote and 158 seats
  • SPS (Socialist Party of Serbia) – led coalition: 13.15% of the vote and 44 seats
  • DS (Democratic Party) – 6.04% of the vote and 19 seats
  • New Democratic Party – 5.71% of the vote and 18 seats

Three parties of ethnic minorities will also be represented in the parliament:

  • Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM) – 2.11% of the vote and 6 seats
  • Party of Democratic Action (SDA) of Sandzak – 0.95% of the vote and 3 seats
  • Party for Democratic Action-Riza Halimi – 0.68 % of the vote and 2 seats

The snap election was called by the Progressive Party, less than two years after the last general election held in July 2012. The SNS-led coalition topped the polls in 2012 and obtained 73 seats in the 250-seat parliament. However, the prime minister position went to Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party. With 44 seats in the parliament, SPS emerged as the kingmaker of the election, as plans for a Grand Coalition between the Progressives and Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party holding 67 seats in the parliament fell through. What followed was a year of political speculation about the timing of the next snap election that would allow the SNS to improve its parliamentary support and to secure the prime minister position.

In the meantime, Aleksandar Vucic, the SNS deputy PM and Ivica Dacic’s main challenger for the prime ministership, strengthened his position within the cabinet and his party. Due to a very active anti-corruption campaign, which drew wide public support and weakened his political opponents, Vucic emerged as the most powerful and popular minister in the Serbian cabinet. The Progressives were also able to capitalize on the government’s popularity, which increased as a result of the successful conclusion of the Serbia-Kosovo agreement, the organisation of local elections in Northern Kosovo in November 2013, and the official start of EU accession talks in January 2014.

There are concerns that Aleksandar Vucic, who does not necessarily have to share power in a coalition government, might use his party’s outright parliamentary majority to strengthen his personal hold over the society. Moreover, his tight grip over the Progressive Party could also reduce the president’s influence over the political system.

Although the presidency enjoys few constitutional powers, Serbian presidents have maintained a relatively high profile in national politics. One reason for their influence over the political system is related to the authority they have preserved over their former parties. 

For example, under the leadership of Boris Tadic, the Democratic Party succeeded to win both presidential and parliamentary elections in 2004 and returned to power following the 2007 and 2008 general elections. In 2012, Tadic resigned as head of state ten months before the end of his term so that concurrent presidential and parliamentary elections would allow the Democrats to capitalize on his coattails. His defeat in the presidential run-off by Tomislav Nikolić, the SNS candidate, played an important role in the Socialist Party’s decision to drop their coalition with the Democrats in favour of a coalition with Nikolic’s Progressives.

Tomislav Nikolic contested the 2012 presidential contest as a de facto leader of the Progressive Party, which broke away from the Serbian Radical Party in 2008 under his leadership. However, he is unlikely to preserve his authority over the party in the face of Aleksandar Vucic, who succeeded him as party president. Vucic ran unopposed for the leadership position in September 2012. To strengthen his legitimacy as a de facto party leader, he was unanimously reconfirmed as party president at a special conference convened in January 2014, where the decision to bring forward the general election was also taken.

Although President Nikolic expressed his support for early elections and endorsed Vucic as future prime minister, they are known as long-lasting political rivals. To prevent the emergence of party divisions and limit presidential influence on intra-party politics, Vucic also used the 2014 party convention to remove the president’s supporters from the party leadership.

Overall, we can expect the results of the 2014 snap election to have an impact on intra-executive politics and reduce the president’s role to its strict constitutional responsibilities. However, the actual relation between the president and the prime minister will depend on the type of cabinet that Aleksandar Vucic will form and on whether the political rivalry between the two political actors will translate into an increased level of presidential activism and/or intra-executive conflict.