Tag Archives: president Zeman

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.

Czech Republic – A new government and the evolution of semi-presidentialism

On 29 January 2014, 95 days since the parliamentary elections of October 2013, president Miloš Zeman appointed a new government under the leadership of Czech Social Democrat Chairman Bohuslav Sobotka, thus ending the longest tenure of an acting government in recent Czech history. While the government still has to pass a vote of confidence in the assembly until the end of February, this is rather seen as a formality given the coalition’s 111 votes in the 200 seat assembly – a comparatively comfortable majority for Czech conditions.

President Miloš Zeman appoints prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka | © Czech Presidential Office 2014

President Zeman eventually did not refuse to appoint any of the candidates presented to him by the coalition parties, yet the past months were filled with speculations about the president’s potential interference. These were mainly fueled by the fact that Zeman had in an unprecedented move already appointed the last government of Jiri Rusnok without consulting parties (the government subsequently failed to win a vote of confidence and resigned) as well as Zeman’s insistence that he need not appoint all candidates proposed to him. In particular, Zeman objected to the candidates for the ministries of interior, industry/trade, and human rights/legislative council. While his objections to individual candidates were only made public in early January, Zeman previously announced that he would require lustration certificates from each candidate (mainly aimed at preventing ANO 2011 leader Andrej Babiš from taking office) and that he would not appoint a candidate without relevant experience.

The question is now in how far this activism can be attributed to Zeman’s popular mandate (from 1993-2013 Czech presidents were elected by parliament) and why he eventually chose to acquiesce with the prime minister’s wishes. Many commentators have pointed out the importance of direct presidential elections for explaining the president’s activism (particularly in connection with the appointment of the Rusnok government in summer 2013) but Zeman himself has not yest publicly spoken about the increased popular legitimacy of the presidency. Given that he has been in office for less than a year (as well as the personal dislike/feud between former party colleagues Sobotka and Zeman), a definite answer on this question needs to wait. Nevertheless, the fact that Zeman has voiced his intention to interfere so publicly suggests that he is very conscious of the signals that he has to send to his electorate.

A clearer answer can be given to the question of why Zeman eventually accepted all candidates for government office, First, Sobotka has already announced that the coalition was intending to limit the president’s powers – by refraining from interference Zeman now avoids a quick implementation or (in case the coalition cannot mobilise a constitutional majority) clarification of his only vaguely defined powers by the constitutional court (which would likely rule in favour of government and parliament).

Even if Zeman continues his current level of activity, this does not mean that the system will necessarily evolve in a way that gives the president a more prominent decision. After neighbouring Slovakia introduced popular presidential elections in 1999, its first incumbent Rudolf Schuster also showed a significantly increased level of activism. Yet faced with a determined parliament and government, he (and his successor) eventually failed to change the (parliamentary) logic of Slovak politics.

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Composition of Sobotka I

government party seat share and portfolio allocation_sobotka1

In terms of portfolio allocation, ANO 2011 is slightly underrepresented but as a new party likely has had to pay an apprentice’s premium. Nevertheless, it receives the offices of first deputy PM, finance (both for controversial party leader Andrej Babiš), and justice.

Prime Minister: Bohuslav Sobotka (ČSSD, male, 42)
First Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Finance: Andrej Babiš (ANO 2011, male, 59)
Deputy Prime Minister & Minister of Science + Research: Pavel Bělobrádek (KDU-ČSL, male, 37)
Minister of Foreign Affairs: Lubomír Zaorálek (ČSSD, male, 57)
Minister of Interior Milan Chovanec (ČSSD, male, 44)
Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Michaela Marksová-Tominová (ČSSD, female, 44)
Minister of Industry and Trade: Jan Mládek (ČSSD, male, 53)
Minister of Health: Svatopluk Němeček (ČSSD, male, 41)
Minister of Justice: Helena Válková (non-partisan/ANO 2011, female, 63)
Minister of Education, Youth and Sport: Marcel Chládek (ČSSD, male, 45)
Minister of Defence: Martin Stropnický (ANO 2011, male, 57)
Minister of Transport: Antonín Prachař (ANO 2011, male, 51)
Minister for Regional Development: Věra Jourová (ANO 2011, female, 49)
Minister of the Environment: Richard Brabec (ANO 2011, male, 47)
Minister of Agriculture: Marian Jurečka (KDU-ČSL, male, 32)
Minister of Culture: Daniel Herman (KDU-ČSL, male, 50)
Minister for Human Rights and Equal Opportunities: Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (ČSSD, male, 44)