Dark Side Election Loss and President’s Failing Health Weaken Czech PM’s Grip on Power
By Tim Gosling, BIRN, October 11, 2021
Oct 13, 2021 - 11:12:59 AM
Constitutional crisis looms if the ailing president tries to keep Babis in office despite the surprise victory of the conservative SPOLU coalition.
Prime Minister Andrej Babis looks to be losing his grip on power after he suffered a surprise defeat in the Czech election.
While the billionaire populist’s ANO party still has a chance to cling to power thanks to the backing of President Milos Zeman, the head of state’s hospitalisation on Sunday has cast huge uncertainty over the formation of the next government.
ANO won 27.1 per cent of the vote on October 8-9, following a campaign in which its leader promised generous spending on pensions and wages, and launched vicious populist attacks on his opponents. However, it was outstripped by the three-party conservative election coalition SPOLU, which took 27.7 per cent, meaning billionaire Babis now faces a huge test of his ability to stay in office.
Nonetheless, President Milos Zeman, who wields the constitutional authority to appoint governments, invited the populist Babis – with whom he has a longstanding power pact – to meet on Sunday. Zeman had said during the summer that he would nominate the leader of the “party” that won the most votes, claiming that the election coalitions – SPOLU and its liberal counterpart comprising the Pirates and Mayors parties – are a “fraud”.
“When the president entrusts me, I will contact the SPOLU coalition and negotiate with them,” Babis said as the final votes were being counted, adding that he expects negotiations to start on Wednesday.
However, even before the end of Saturday, SPOLU announced it had concluded a memorandum with the Pirates and Mayors, which won 15.5 per cent, to form a governing coalition.
The two coalitions, which have been cooperating throughout the campaign under the banner of the “Democratic Bloc”, will control at least 108 of the 200 seats in parliament.
Petr Fiala, leader of SPOLU, said that the parties have agreed to negotiate only among themselves, ruling out talks with any other parties. The alliance called on Zeman to appoint Fiala as prime minister.
Zeman has long hoped to exploit Babis’s weakness to gain access to the levers of power. As part of his populist agenda, he seeks to push Czechia closer to Russia and China, and weaken its Western foreign policy orientation.
Meanwhile, Babis is desperate to remain in office. He has multiple scandals hanging over him, including potential criminal charges relating to his alleged misuse of EU subsidies.
Therefore, the election result leaves him vulnerable to the president’s strategy. After ANO won 30 per cent of the vote in the 2017 election, it took the billionaire nine months and two attempts to form a minority government with the centre-left CSSD, and dependent on support from the communist KSCM.
However, ANO’s generous spending promises have helped it usurp much of the support on the left, and both parties failed this time to win enough votes to cross the 5 per cent threshold to enter parliament. That means the next parliament will be the first in which the pair is absent since the country’s first vote in 1996.
Meanwhile, a campaign warning voters of the dangers of mass migration and the EU’s proliferating power also helped ANO absorb votes from the right, ousting several smaller radical-right parties that could have been potential coalition partners on the illiberal side of the spectrum. The far-right SPD, which has demanded a referendum on EU membership as its price for cooperation, remains ANO’s only realistic partner. However, it failed to improve on the 10 per cent it won in 2017, and therefore would not help Babis achieve a majority.
Yet the invitation to Babis to meet on Sunday suggests Zeman remains determined to brazen it out. “Although it will be difficult to resist the pressure to nominate the winner of the election, Zeman is likely to stay on course and appoint Babis,” says Sean Hanley, an associate professor at University College London.
Under the constitution, the head of state can appoint whomever he likes to form the next government. Should the government he picks fail to win a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, there is no time limit on when he must use his second and final nomination.
Many analysts suspect Zeman could seek to keep a Babis-led government in place until his second and final presidential term ends in March 2023.
However, many expect the pair to play for time in the hope that the Democratic Bloc coalitions will fracture. The five parties have been united in their opposition to Babis, but are split on issues such as Brussels, the budget or social issues.
“There are a lot of potential points of conflict inside SPOLU and PirSTAN,” political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova tells BIRN. “However, I’m not sure those issues will blow up ahead of forming a cabinet.”
At the same time, the Democratic Bloc’s majority offers leverage over the president. Party leaders told BIRN ahead of the vote that should Zeman appoint Babis regardless of the election result, they are ready to launch a bid to have Zeman declared unfit for office. They would also call for protests.
“A constitutional crisis is unavoidable unless Zeman recognises that majority in parliament,” says Milan Nic from the German Council for Foreign Relations.
However, all bets were off by Sunday afternoon, with Zeman’s health the wild card.
The 77-year-old president, a heavy smoker and drinker who has diabetes, has become increasingly frail in recent years and is now confined to a wheelchair. An unexplained stint in hospital in September had raised speculation that his condition is growing more serious.
The discussion over what might happen should he become incapacitated was turbo-charged on Sunday when he was rushed to hospital just after meeting Babis to discuss their strategy.
Doctor’s would only say that the head of state was in intensive care for treatment for a “chronic illness”. A debate quickly flared up regarding the responsibility of Prague Castle to give the country details of the president’s condition.
Should the head of state be declared incapacitated by the lower and upper houses of parliament, his constitutional power to nominate the next government would, when the new parliament is convened on October 21, pass to the speaker. The Democratic Bloc would control the vote to appoint a new speaker.
“The president’s health could delay the process for a while,” says Dvorakova, “but when the house votes for new leadership, it could leave the road clear for the Democratic Bloc.”
Yet even should Zeman find the strength to push past the objections, the election result suggests it may only be a matter of time before Babis loses his grip. Unless he can blow up the Democratic Bloc, the government he forms would be barely able to legislate