Czech politics: Zeman emerges politically strengthened, early elections approach

Read few comments by experts.  

Sean Hanley, Senior Lecturer in East European Politics, University College London

1. Although, as expected, the Rusnok government failed to win confidence -and the increased prospect of early elections means that its time in office as a vlada v demisi may be limited – Milos Zeman emerges politically strengthened. Overall, his risk-taking strategy and willingness to flout constitutional conventions over the past weeks has paid off for him, establishing him as powerful player in domestic party politics in a way that no previous president of the CR has been – and humiliating Bohuslav Sobotka and the anti-Zeman faction in CSSD.

Zeman’s instincts about the reactions – and frustrations – of (left-wing) Czech voters as well as his calculations about the balance of forces in CSSD and reactions of KSCM proved extremely good, as did his (slightly less difficult-to-make) assessment that the right was (or would become) too disunited to come up with the promised 101+ votes (although as two MPs are in jail, 100 not 101 votes would actually be a bare majority).

While it still seems likely that left-wing parties will emerge with a majority in future elections, the Czech left may, however, emerge as a much more fragmented force: SPOZ seems likely to emerge as a parliamentary force; the Social Democrats will be more openly split (and some kind of ‘modernising’ breakaway party might not be excluded); as well as KSCM, whose options are now much more complicated than they appeared previously.

The idea of unified left-wing bloc under the informal leadership of Zeman (a kind of Czech equivalent of SMER) – which Zeman raised shortly after being elected and may still aspire to – strikes me – as being a fata morgana.

2. The exact circumstances which led two ODS deputies and Karolina Peake not to vote against Rusnok are unclear, but: (i) add to the impression of the impression of ODS as a corrupt and disorganised party; and (ii) raise suspicious for many people that corrupt forms of trafika are enduring/engrained across the political establishment.

Early elections in the autumn, if they occur, will probably be catastrophic for ODS, which could be wiped off the political map. TOP09 seems likely to achieve its strategic goal of becoming the main party on the Czech centre-right, but will be hard pushed to unite right-wing and liberal voters in the way Schwarzenberg did in the presidential elections (It is unclear how long Schwarzenberg will remain in politics; whether his charisma will work again; or how safe is from anti-corruption probes). Logically, opportunities for new parties such as Babis movement or the Úsvit grouping fronted by Tomio Okamura may also open up.

3. Overall, both main parties which have been the two pillars of the Czech political system for last 20 years seem to be melting down, ushering a phase in which there will be looser, more fragmented political blocs composed of smaller, weaker, less stable parties. These seem likely to be even less transparent, more-leader-centred and more beholden to vested interests and ‘political businessmen’ than current parties.

In this respect, the warnings sounded by Bohuslav Sobotka in interviews with Czech media in the last few days about the risk to democracy posed by SPOZ as an opaque ‘commercial party’ built around a political strongman with little respect for constitutional proprieties were, I think, very well made. I also agree with his and others critical assessment of Milos Zeman’s attitude towards the Czech Constitution, which sets a worrying precedent (the lesson to others being: ruthlessly and blatantly bend the rules more than others thought conceivable and you will win).

Sadly, however, while clearly an intelligent and perceptive politician, Sobotka seems to lack the leadership qualities; the levels of internal support in his own party; and the strategic skills needed to deliver an effective, modern, independent governing party.

In this respect, his position rather resembles that of Petr Necas at the head of ODS in 2010 (although without the problems of having been in government – although the Rath trial will cast an unwelcome light on CSSD as a party of regional government).

Lee Savage, Lecturer in European Politics, Department of European & International Studies, King’s College London

Firstly, this is a massive victory for the left in the Czech Republic. The Necas government was unpopular but looked unlikely to leave office early before the scandal erupted a couple of months ago. Zeman has played the game very well from a purely strategic point of view. The former coalition of right wing parties should have been able to form a government that could rule until the scheduled elections next year since they held a legislative majority but Zeman’s bold move in proposing a technocratic government that could not hope to gain the confidence of parliament escalated the sense of political crisis which, in turn, led to cracks in the right alliance.

The elections which are likely to take place in October should see a comfortable victory for the Social Democrats but it remains likely that they will govern as a minority administration if current opinion polls are a guide. This may mean that the tolerance, if not support, of KSCM will be needed to sustain the government. The other interesting issue going into the elections will be the realignment of the right of the Czech party system. ODS are haemorrhaging support and could face oblivion at the polls leaving the space clear for TOP09, a development that no doubt has influenced the party’s support for early elections following the failed vote of confidence on Wednesday.

The decline of ODS can be seen as part of a wider regional trend in which a number of the parties that dominated politics in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s have burned out or faded away. The MSZP in Hungary saw their electoral support halve between 2006 and 2010 while SDL in Poland, HZDS in Slovakia and LDS in Slovenia are marginal political players at best in their respective countries. This indicates that the political space in many countries is still open to political entrepreneurs and that parties are failing to retain their dominant positions within the party system either by i) establishing sizable, loyal support bases or ii) placing sufficient barriers to entry to the political system.

A final thought concerns the future of the presidency in the Czech Republic. Zeman has clearly interpreted his constitutional role as widely as possible – wider than many would say is reasonable. Even if he has stayed within the bounds of the constitution he has redefined the ‘spirit of the constitution’. Zeman will argue that his direct election gave him a broader mandate than previous (parliamentary-appointed) presidents but it will be interesting to see what the parties make of his actions. Even the CSSD who have benefited from the current situation will be wary of a president that is more active in government affairs than previous occupants of the office. It is likely that parliament will seek to clarify the role of the president and limits of presidential power at some point int he near future.

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