Is Zeman ze man?

November 20, 2013
Czech President Milos Zeman. (Reuters) Czech President Milos Zeman  (Reuters)

[Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from Vincent Post, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, whose work focuses on Czech politics and the legacy of the communist-era secret services in post-communist Europe.]

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Negotiations to form a new government are in full swing three weeks after a razor’s-edge outcome in the Czech general elections. While the Social Democrats (Česká Strana Sociálně Demokratická, ČSSD) technically became the largest party in parliament, the elections also saw a landslide victory for billionaire Andrej Babiš, whose ANO party gained just two seats less. (See excellent coverage of those elections from previous Monkey Cage election reports by Tim Haughton, Tereza Novotna and Kevin Deegan-Krause here and here).

These two parties, along with the smaller Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), have now started talks to form a government. Forming a coalition tends to be a complicated process, seeking to unite parties that only recently campaigned against each other, and the current Czech formation process will be no exception. Over the last weeks it has become clear, however, that the actions of Czech President Miloš Zeman are yet another source of obstacles. Zeman has sown discord within the ranks of the Social Democrats (the party he himself led during the 1990s) and has threatened to obstruct the eventual appointment of Babiš to the cabinet on account of his alleged past in the Czechoslovakian secret service (Státní Bezpečnost, StB).

In January of this year, Zeman became the first Czech president to be directly elected (previous presidents  were elected by the joint houses of parliament), and since coming to power he has interpreted the role of president in a much more activist way than his predecessors, even though constitutionally the presidential prerogatives have not changed. In his 10th month on the job, Zeman’s most recent moves are another instance of him asserting himself and the office of the president as he places himself in opposition to the future government before it has even been sworn in.

Zeman and the Social Democrats: A love/hate relationship

Zeman’s post-election gambit began almost as soon as the results came in, when he took a shot at ČSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka, calling for him to step down — even though Sobotka’s party was still the largest party in parliament and Zeman is not himself a member of the Social Democrats. He used to be: Zeman and the Social Democrats have a complicated past.

During the 1990s, he was the party’s leader and he headed a ČSSD government from 1998 to 2002. After that, he left politics as well as the ČSSD and retreated to his cottage in the Czech hills, from whence he offered a sustained criticism of the ČSSD, all before returning to politics in recent years. Like a jilted sweetheart, the Czech Social Democrats are torn between those who think they can still make things work with Zeman, and those who want to turn away from him and look for love elsewhere.

Party leader Sobotka belongs to the latter group. After the Civic Democratic government of Petr Nečas fell during the Summer, Zeman refused to appoint parliament’s candidate for the prime minister’s office and appointed someone of his own choice, Jiří Rusnok (see here for some comments on that episode by Seán Hanley at UCL). Sobotka opposed the way Zeman overruled parliament and fought against the Rusnok cabinet. However, to illustrate just how divided this party is: although Sobotka was leader of the ČSSD caucus at the time, he lost that fight, and his party ended up supporting the Rusnok government in its failed vote of confidence, which led to the most recent round of general elections in October.

It is exactly this division that Zeman exploited by inviting some of those within the ČSSD who support him to talk shop — without Sobotka involved. Michal Hašek, ČSSD Governor in Southern Moravia and deputy leader of the party, was one of those people. An ardent supporter of Zeman’s politics, he add already called on Sobotka to step down and saw this as his chance to unseat Sobotka and take a shot at leading ČSSD himself following  the disappointing election result (although they remain the largest party in parliament, the Social Democrats underperformed and lost some seats).

Initially, Hašek denied that there had been a secret meeting with the president, calling it a rumor (video — in Czech — here). But after it became clear that it had in fact taken place, he and a number of his allies have stepped down from the party leadership, leaving Sobotka free to negotiate a coalition. This has weakened the Zemanite camp within ČSSD for the moment but the party continues to be deeply divided and it remains to be seen how well Sobotka as prime minister can control his MPs as they enter into a new government.

Former spies in the Cabinet?

Just as some degree of calm began to return to ČSSD ranks, an additional barrier to forming a stable government was thrown up when Zeman announced that he would be requiring “lustration certificates” from all prospective cabinet ministers. The 1991 lustration law requires that applicants for a range of positions in the bureaucracy (though not including the cabinet) submit a certificate confirming that they were never Communist Party functionaries or secret service collaborators. Highly controversial (dissident-turned-president Václav Havel opposed the law claiming it “allowed the secret service to rule from beyond the grave”), the law was renewed in 1995 and 2000 and is still on the books today. While it was intended in part to calm the fiery public debate over who did what before 1989, it has not accomplished this goal (my dissertation looks at this question in more detail — see this poster for a quick overview).

Zeman’s move earlier this week is aimed directly at Andrej Babiš, the Slovak-born billionaire whose upstart party ANO (Akce Nespokojených Občanů, Dissatisfied Citizens’ Action; the acronym is also the Czech word for ‘yes’) made a great splash in the elections, coming in second by winning 48 out of 200 seats. Babiš, who was a member in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia between 1980 and 1989, has been fighting accusations that he was a secret service informer, claiming that evidence has been forged and manipulated (As an aside to this link, it is worth noting that as of this year, Babiš owns a variety of news outlets including the newspaper to which I have linked in the previous sentence).

Meanwhile, the Slovak Nation’s Memory Institute (Ústav pamäti národa, ÚPN) has published his (incomplete, part was destroyed in 1989) file (pdf), and continues to stand by it. As long as it does so, it will not be possible for Babiš to obtain the lustration certificate that President Zeman wants from him before he appoints him to the cabinet. Zeman, who was an opponent of the law before he became president and who has not shied away from working with former StB-informers himself, claims that his predecessors enforced this rule and he is just following precedent. However, according to the 1991 law, the cabinet and other political offices are not subject to lustration and Babiš may get a court to agree with him that Zeman is misinterpreting the rules. Until he does, however, he will not be able to be appointed to the government.

A shift from parliamentarianism to semi-presidentialism?

Ultimately, the Social Democrats and Babiš can probably overcome their respective obstacles, but for the moment Zeman’s maneuvers do serve to delay and weaken the coming government. By design, the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy where most of the executive power lies with the head of government (the prime minister) and not in the head of state (the president). Making the primarily ceremonial (though strongly symbolic) office of the president subject to direct elections has meant a shift in the relations between the president and the government, taking the country in the direction of French-style semi-presidentialism in which both the head of state and the head of the government have strong and possibly opposing popular mandates.

While the presidential prerogatives outlined in the Czech Constitution have not changed, Zeman is taking this shift seriously and is putting a highly activist twist on his interpretation of the presidency. Over the last few weeks, his role in the government formation has served as further evidence that Zeman seeks to expand the purview of his office considerably — at the expense of the power of a government with parliamentary support.

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