Tag Archives: Czech Republic; president; prime minister

Czech Prime Minister’s Troubles and Presidential “Kisses of Death”

In spring 2019, Czech politics was largely shaped by the European Parliament election campaign and election results as well as by ongoing street protests against controversial Prime Minister Andrej Babiš due to allegations of conflict of interests and other affairs.

Before turning to the results of the vote for the European Parliament in the Czech Republic, I will summarize problems Andrej Babiš is currently facing. Anti-Babiš demonstrations have been regularly organized by a civic initiative called „Millions of Moments for Democracy“, which seeks to attract the general public’s attention to multiple problems related to Babiš’s political and notably economic interests. First, is in a gigantic conflict of interest because of his business conglomerate “Agrofert” of some 250 companies. Agrofert receives tens of millions of euros each year in EU funding, mostly farm subsidies. Even though Agrofert was placed in trust funds in 2017 to comply with a new conflict of interest law, Babiš has command of trust funds that control the Agrofert group and Babiš’s cabinet formulates farming, environmental and other policies that affect Agrofert business. Since Babiš came to power, there has been a clear rise in the total amount of subsidies for the Agrofert conglomerate. The subsidies outweigh the amount of taxes paid by Agrofert to the state. The above civic as well as partisan opposition, was fueled by a European Commission’s report that confirms that Andrej Babiš has a conflict of interest. The Czech branch of Transparency International which initiated the EU probe estimated the Czech Republic would have to return about 19 million euros in EU subsidies. Consequently, the Czech government will be obliged to claim the money back from Agrofert. The opposition Pirate Party claimed it would seek a vote of no confidence in the minority cabinet led by Babiš. However, the government may count on a solid base of support in the Chamber of Deputies. The far-left Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy, have proved reliable support parties.

However, this is not the only instance of conflict of interests for Babiš. Agrofert is the owner of two national newspapers with high circulation, several magazines and a radio station, a fact that allows Babiš to significantly affect the media atmosphere in the country, including his own media image. Babiš also faces the charge of the alleged misuse of 2 mil euros in EU subsidy. Moreover, Babiš has been criticized for having sacked the Minister of Justice, Jan Kněžínek, who resigned without giving a clear reason a day after police wrapped up their investigation and recommended that Babis stand trial over the above-mentioned affair of misappropriating an EU subsidy. Mrs. Marie Benešová, President’s Zeman advisor, was appointed to replace him at the head of the Ministry of Justice. Protesters complain that Benešová may hinder the independent work of judges and affect the final outcome of the trial.

Despite these serious problems which would likely derail the political careers of most politicians elsewhere, Babiš remains the dominant figure of Czech party politics. This is exemplified by the fact that his political party (officially called “movement”) – ANO 2011 – won a relative majority in the European Parliament elections. Sure, his victory was not as great as expected by many commentators and polls, still, ANO 2011 gained two more seats in comparison to the 2014 EP elections. Overall, opposition parties won a majority of 12 out of 21 MEPs, whereas the ruling parties, including the two support parties scored 9 MEPs.

To explain the dominance of ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic is not an easy task. The party has been a ruling party since 2014 (as a junior coalition party 2014-2017). One could expect the gradual decline of its popularity, as has been the case of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) that has been in power together with ANO 2011 since 2014 (in 2014-2017 as the leading coalition party). ČSSD and ANO exchanged roles after ANO won in the 2017 elections. It could be generally argued that in contrast to the ČSSD, Andrej Babiš and his business-firm party has been skillful in communicating its policies and political successes to the voters. Babiš is a charismatic figure and remained a popular chairman of the party, portraying himself as a successful businessman which made him also a successful politician. He was able to reap major credit for rising pensions and for a good economic performance of the country, including rising GDP per capita and notably almost non-existent unemployment. His party uses efficient political marketing and promotes Andrej Babiš as a leader who is able to deliver the policies that most people wish for.

In contrast, the ČSSD failed in the elections and gained no MEP. Its voters deserted to ANO and other political parties. The ČSSD lacks charismatic figures, clear policy messages and remains torn between a liberal pro-European wing on the one hand and a national-conservative Eurosceptical wing on the other hand. Some former ČSSD’s voters cannot forgive the party for being in the ruling coalition with Babiš’ ANO 2011. Other voters, who value liberal democratic principles, opt for other parties, including the Czech Pirate Party. Traditional left-wing voters may consider Babiš as more skillful than the ČSSD in securing social benefits. Shortly before the EP elections,  ČSSD’s reputation might have been negatively affected also by the fact that the ČSSD’s Minister of Culture, Antonín Staněk, demonstrated a lack of competence and resigned. It is uncommon that ministers of culture, a generally weak portfolio with a small budget, attract so much attention. In media terms, Staněk was originally almost an invisible minister. Media focused on him only two times, both times unfavorably. First, he participated in the presentation of a controversial book written by a communist MP, Miroslav Grebeníček, who strongly criticized financial compensetion to churches in the Czech Republic. The churches were deprived of their properties during the 1948-1989 Communist dictatorship and in 2013 the right-wing coalition pushed trhough a bill which introduced the compensation. Second, Staněk recalled the director of the National Gallery in Prague as well as the director of the Olomouc Museum of Art. The arguments that were to support the recall of both directors appeared unconvincing and led to a number of protests and petitions against Staněk who eventually resigned from office. The ČSSD was pictured as a party, which lacks enough competent persons to fill ministerial posts.

There is a special feature of the Czech politics that is related to the ČSSD electoral disaster in 2019. There has been a tradition of (at least rhetorically) non-partisan presidents. At the same time, however, the Czech presidents have repeatedly attempted to form a loyal party in the Chamber of Deputies. However, once they openly supported any political party, the party failed in the elections. This phenomenon, which is commonly known as “the kiss of death”, can be consistently and repeatedly illustrated by all the three Czech presidents. None of them was able to create solid partisan support in the Chamber of Deputies. From public opinion surveys, it can be inferred that voters insist on a non-partisan president who is not directly associated with any political party loyal to the head of state.[1] As for the most recent case of the kiss of death, Miloš Zeman strongly advocated for ČSSD’s involvement in Babiš’s cabinet in 2017. At the March 2019 ČSSD party congress, Zeman praised the party for having joined the coalition and made it clear he would vote for the party, which received less than 5 percent in the EP elections. Of course, Zeman’s kiss of death can be hardly identified as the primary source of the ČSSD’s debacle, still it has confirmed this peculiar pattern of Czech politics.

M. Brunclík and M.
Kubát, Parliamentarism,
Semi-Presidentialism and Presidents. Presidential Politics in Central Europe
 (London and
New York: Routledge, 2019), 110-113

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).