PRAGUE—A long political drama ended in the Czech Republic this week with the government narrowly averting collapse, but only by surrendering to what amounts to a presidential coup. When President Milos Zeman formally appointed Lubomir Zaoralek as culture minister on Aug. 27, it brought an end to more than 100 days of crisis. Zaoralek, a former foreign minister, was parachuted in after Zeman refused to confirm the previous nominee put forward by the left-leaning Social Democrats, the junior partner in the coalition government led by Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his populist Ano party.
Since this standoff over the Cabinet appointment began, the Social Democrats threatened several times to leave the minority coalition unless its deputy chairman, Michal Smarda, was named culture minister. But in the end the party crumbled. The prime minister, formally the most powerful figure in the Czech Republic, did no better. Babis failed to confront Zeman and in the end meekly pledged his support for a head of state whose powers are supposed to be largely ceremonial.
Full of bluffs, blustering and blatant lies, the standoff was all too typical of Czech politics today, but with one difference: the president now has his hands on the levers of power. “Zeman is clearly in control and will now dictate,” says Otilia Dhand, an adviser at the risk analysis firm Teneo Intelligence.
Zeman’s objections to Smarda’s appointment began as soon as Babis put him forward for the presidential rubber stamp, as is required by the Czech constitution. But what was really driving Zeman was the opportunity to exploit a vaguely worded constitution and weak, scandal-ridden government to expand the powers of his post. The gambit was an unqualified success for a fiery populist who has links to Russia and China and notoriously baits his many liberal critics with outrageous rhetoric against migrants, Islam and Roma. He now holds significant sway over the political system.
Babis, facing potential criminal charges and mass protests, didn’t dare assert his prime ministerial power. Internal party rivalries and collapsing public support prevented Jan Hamacek, leader of the Social Democrats, from walking out of the coalition in protest. Both must now try to make the best of the humiliation. Babis, a billionaire who rose to power stressing his capacity to lead, dismisses accusations that he is captive to the president.
Opposition parties in Prague warn that there is a lot more at stake, however, than the fate of these two politicians. “Zeman’s victory over the CSSD and Babis is a severe defeat for the Czech Republic,” Jiri Pospisil, chairman of the conservative Top 09 party told reporters in Prague, using the acronym for the Social Democrats. “It’s a victory of a president who is not interested in any rules, and by constantly violating the constitution moves the Czech Republic toward a semi-presidential system.”
The personal and political problems of Babis, who is supposed to wield real power as prime minister, are keeping the country at the mercy of a sly and populist president in Zeman.
Since winning the country’s first direct presidential election in 2013, Zeman has claimed that he has a mandate to direct government policy. To that end, he has tested the boundaries of a constitution that requires the president to appoint ministerial nominees proposed by the prime minister, but imposes no time limit on that process.
For most of the last 30 years since the collapse of communism, such glaring holes in the hastily cobbled together Czech democratic system went largely unnoticed. Previous presidents worked in line with customary practice of deferring to the constitution, but Zeman has thrown out such norms and traditions. “Zeman is known for pushing the limits of a constitution that is so vague that it’s hardly fit for purpose,” Dhand says. “The Czech Republic now has the traits of a semi-presidential system.”
Analysts insist that the political establishment also bears responsibility. Persistent corruption and cronyism have damaged the trust of voters, and mainstream political parties have lost ground to the gains of controversial and politically inexperienced populists and extremists. The Social Democrats, which had dominated Czech politics after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, alongside the center-right Civic Democratic Party, or ODS, is now so weak that it risks a split or losing its place in parliament in the event of an election. The opposition is fragmented and unable to come together to oppose Zeman.
“It is only the weakness of the political parties that allows Zeman to act in this way,” says Jiri Pehe, a political analyst in Prague and adviser to former President Vaclav Havel.
Zeman is far from finished. His ultimate aim appears to be to handpick the entire Cabinet. It wouldn’t be the first time. When an ODS-led government collapsed in 2013, Zeman appointed his own technocratic administration, over the objections of parliament. It took parliament six months to oust the imposed caretaker government, which at the time was criticized as “a fundamental challenge to Czech parliamentary democracy.”
Zeman will have plenty more opportunity to provoke problems in the coming weeks. While he can capitalize on the fragility of the Social Democrats, which Zeman was a member of through the 1990s and until a falling out in 2007, he is really targeting the increasingly weak Babis. The billionaire prime minister started his term as an equal partner to Zeman in a power-sharing pact struck ahead of parliamentary elections in 2017, when Ano won 30 percent of the vote. But Babis is now hugely compromised as prime minister, and things are set to get worse this fall.
The European Union is due to finalize a report accusing Babis of a conflict of interest over subsidies given to his agro-chemicals conglomerate, Agrofert. State prosecutors are set to decide soon whether to pursue criminal fraud charges against Babis over the EU subsidies. A series of protests that brought more than 250,000 onto the streets of Prague in June calling for his resignation are sure to resume. Babis’ only way out may be a presidential pardon.
“Babis is weakened and clearly no longer respected by the president,” says Jakub Michalek, the head of the parliamentary faction of the Pirate Party, now the leading opposition party in Prague.
So the coalition will remain on edge. Zeman has said that should it collapse, he will reappoint Babis to lead a minority government. That would leave Ano to rely on the communist KSCM and far-right SPD for parliamentary support. Both parties have links to Zeman and have called for the Czech Republic to leave the EU and NATO.
Some corners of the political establishment, attempting to push back against Zeman, have been stymied by a lack of trust and cooperation. The Senate, the upper house of parliament still controlled by most of the mainstream parties in the Czech Republic, put forward a motion in late July accusing Zeman of abusing the constitution. But to go anywhere, it would need the approval of two-thirds of the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament—as would a push for early elections.
That leaves such moves in the hands of Ano’s 78 deputies. “If Ano were to join the effort to impeach Zeman, it would change everything,” Pehe says. But Ano is less a political party than a division of Babis’ business empire, and he calls the shots. In effect, the personal and political problems of Babis, who is supposed to wield real power as prime minister, are keeping the country at the mercy of a sly and populist president in Zeman.
Dhand worries that “the Czech Republic is shifting from a standard political system to one increasingly dominated by strong leaders with a populist agenda,” and the political center still seems unable to respond. Michalek admits that even in the event that Babis rebels against Zeman and pushes for early elections, “it’s hard to say if the Pirates would support that call.” With Babis backed even more tightly into a corner, it’s a decision the party is unlikely to face.