Czech Republic – National and international dimensions of president Zeman’s controversies

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 3 November 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman has not shied away from controversy since taking office in spring 2013. Starting with the appointment of the Rusnok government which lacked support in parliament from the start and threatening interference in the formation of the current government, Zeman has drawn criticism for expletive-laden radio interviews, his support for Vladimir Putin and his comments on the refugee crisis. Especially the latter has put an international spotlight on the president so that gaffes and conflicts with the government increasingly create not only national controversies but also international repercussions.

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

Czech president Milos Zeman | photo via hrad.cz

President Zeman has long been a vocal opponent to accepting any of the refugees who have been coming into Europe during the last years. Although he is not alone in his general position among the presidents of the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), his recent proposal to send refugees to uninhabited Greek islands and send back all s-called ‘economic migrants’ was met with such international backlash that the Czech foreign minister saw itself forced to publicly state that these remarks did not represent the country’s policy.

Zeman has so far largely ignored the constitutional provisions and practice that put the government, rather than the president, in charge of foreign policy and has shown little tact on both the national and international stage. In a latest gaffe, Zeman prematurely announced Hynek Kmonicek as the new Czech ambassador to the United States. Kmonicek, who currently still serves as Zeman’s foreign policy advisor, had however not been approved by the United States yet. Zeman is already engaged in a personal feud with the US ambassador to the Czech Republic, Robert Shapiro, since Shapiro criticised the president’s pro-Putin stance (Zeman subsequently failed to invite the ambassador to a number of events at the presidential palace). Given that the current administration also disapproves of Zeman’s blanket criticism of the EU and most likely does not look favourably upon his openly voiced support for presidential candidates Donald Trump in the US and far-right Norbert Hofer in Austria, the president’s actions have put the entire appointment process in jeopardy. Zeman similarly revealed the name of yet another of his aides poised to become ambassador (Jindrich Forejt as Czech representative in the Vatican; yet given the Czech Republic’s reputation as [one of] the most atheist country in Europe this caused less friction internationally).

In another controversy, Zeman decided not to award a medal to Holocaust survivor and remembrance campaigner George Brady after his nephew, Culture Minister Daniel Herman, met with the Dalai Lama. The official position of the Czech Republic is to accept China’s claims on Tibet, but no punitive action has ever been taken against public officials who met with the Tibetan leader. Zeman on the other hand, has been an avid support of Chinese investment in the country and seems to have taken matters into his own hands after he was unsatisfied with the government’s response – in fact, it was the presidential office that released a statement distancing the government from minister Herman – who Zeman had previously personally requested not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Both the (potential) appointment of a Zeman allies to ambassadorial positions and the passivity in the Dalai Lama-episode highlights that the government does not possess the power to curb the president’s activism. After a slump in public opinion in late 2014, the Zeman has once again gained in popularity (not the least due to his populist stance in the refugee crisis) while the government’s support has been stagnant. Furthermore, a survey showed that following losses in local elections, many members of the main governing party CSSD look to Zeman (who was its chairman 1993-2001) for leadership rather than to Prime Minister Sobotka. Nevertheless, until now Zeman’s support base in the party is limited to grassroots members, rather than members of parliament so that his influence is still limited to some degree. Yet particularly looking forward to the next parliamentary elections in 2017 (to be held half a year before Zeman’s first term in office runs out) and the taking into account that Zeman has no official partisan representation in parliament, attempts to influence CSSD policy and strategy may increase and Zeman could try to use his popularity with CSSD members as leverage to assume an unofficial co-leadership role in the future and make sure the party supports his re-election bid in 2018.

Czech Republic – President Zeman vs Prime Minister Sobotka once again

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 9 February 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman and his remarks about refugees (including those in his Christmas message) have made continuously made headlines over the last months, earning him the reputation of  being ‘Europe’s answer to Donald Trump‘. At the same time and relatively unnoticed by international media, the ongoing conflict between Zeman and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with whose coalition government Zeman is in cohabitation) has recently bubbled up once again. After Zeman’s activism was previously less than well-received by the public, he is now using the opportunities created by his recent rise in popularity and upcoming local elections to launch another effort to weaken the Prime Minister and his government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (l.) and President Milos Zeman

The refugee crisis continues to dominate not only European but also Czech politics, creating a divide within both the public and politics on how to deal with it. On the side stands president Zeman whose notorious anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric find resonance in a significant parts of the population (in a recent opinion poll ca. two thirds agreed with his stance) and has contributed to the rise of a number of anti-immigration groups. Anti-immigration protests and attacks on a refugee centre culminated in a new climax over the weekend.  Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka from the Social Democratic CSSD (which Zeman incidentally chaired 1992-2001 but left in 2007) finds himself on the other side of the conflict. Although his government – just like his Polish and Slovak counterparts – also rejects the suggested quota system (the Czech Republic currently has so far only offered to shelter 400 refugees) and Sobotka is wary of the effects public opinion, he has so far presented the voice of reason, condemning any violence and accusing Zeman of destabilising society.

The refugee issue is still gaining in momentum, yet have not yet translated in an increased leverage for Zeman or sufficient political pressure on the government to resign, not the least due to the fact that coalition partners (and even some opposition parties) have so far been relatively united in fending off Zeman’s attacks and criticising his remarks.  President and Prime Minister clashed on recalling the country’s ambassador to Norway as a reaction to the ongoing discussions with the Norwegian government about the decisions of its child welfare service ‘Barneverent’ (which has placed several children of Central East European parents into foster care, allegedly without sufficient justification or examination). Although the issue triggered a few demonstrations, it has not had much of an additional impact in Zeman’s favour (who already excluded the Norwegian ambassador from some events in the past).

It appears that Zeman is therefore attempting another strategy alongside of attacking the government on its policies (see also below). Specifically, CSSD insiders talk about the possibilityof a second ‘Lany coup’ (Lany is the president’s summer residence) – a renewed attempt to topple the Prime Minister with the help of Sobotka’s CSSD-internal opponents. A similar plan failed in autumn 2013 after the last parliamentary elections, but as Zeman is now apparently supported by Michal Hasek – first deputy chairman of the CSSD one of the regional governors that the party would like to see re-elected later this year – the situation has changed. Furthermore, Sobotka and his government currently face accusations of incompetence after hispersonal email account was hacked by a far-right group who have now started to publish the emails – primarily those relating to the government’s response to the refugee crisis.

It is crucial to note here that Zeman himself has no representation in parliament and thus lacks one of the crucial means for presidents to indirectly exert political influence. The ‘Party for Citzens’ Rights – Zemanites’ (SPOZ) which he founded in 2009 failed to enter parliament in 2013 and does not play an important political role (it has also since rid itself of ‘Zemanites’-suffix). As a former member and chairman of the CSSD, he maintains good contacts to some parts of the party and is still admired by some but there are no ‘natural allies’ for him among the governing or opposition parties. His strategy therefore appears to weaken the CSSD to the point that he is granted some degree of influence (which would likely include the removal of Sobotka to whom Zeman still attributes blame for not becoming president in the indirect elections in 2003). The fact that regional assembly and Senate elections will be held in October hereby plays out in Zeman’s favour. Should he continue to gain popularity at the expense of the government, Sobotka and the CSSD will have to find new ways of dealing with the president – which may include some compromises with Zeman – or risk an even greater electoral defeat in the ‘mid-term’ elections.