Czech Republic – President Zeman under fire

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 19 December 2014

Since coming into office, president Miloš Zeman has not shied away from controversy. He made headlines early on in his presidency when he appointed the Rusnok government despite an evident lack of support in parliament and a parliamentary counter-proposal. While this had only little impact on his public standing so far, he recently had to face increasing criticism for his statements and behaviour in office, and experienced a dramatic drop in public approval.

Protesters show president Zeman symbolic red cards during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution | photo via wikimedia commons

Since Vaclav Havel, Czech presidents have given live radio Interviews from their residence in Lany. On these occasions they discussed current political developments and used the opportunity to highlight issues close to their heart. During an interview in early November, Zeman was asked about the Russian dissident punk group ‘Pussy Riot’ while talking about the policies of Vladimir Putin. Yet rather than discussing the latter, Zeman provided Czech translations of the band’s name and a number of their songs using a wide range of profanities. Following the interview, the radio station not only received hundreds of complaints but Zeman’s words were also strongly criticised by politicians across the political spectrum as being inappropriate for a head of state. While Zeman and a number of other prominent Czech politicians have been known to use a more ‘colourful’ language at times, the incident is so far unique.

Following the incident, Zeman and his statements came under closer scrutiny by media and the public, leading to further dissatisfaction and criticism. During his trip to China only a few days prior to the controversial interview, Zeman had declared that he believed Taiwan to be part of China (which contradicts the government’s stance) and said on Chinese TV that he had ‘come to learn how to stabilise society’. Furthermore, he returned from his trip using the private jet of a Czech businessman rather than an official aircraft. While the latter might not seem too controversial for the outsider, the fact that the Czech Republic has long battled with political corruption and flights sponsored by businessmen also played a (admittedly less important) role in the resignation of German president Christian Wulff due to corruption allegations highlights that this was more than just a ‘faux pas’ (which Zeman – as a former Prime Minister – should have known to avoid).

Another part of the public discussion of Zeman’s behaviour was (and still is) his stance on the Ukrainian crisis. Among others, Zeman appeared on Russian TV to criticise the EU sanctions, proposed the ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine (subordination of foreign & defence policy to Russia),invited Russian president Vladimir Putin to Prague, and spoke up against the prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership. While the latter is also the German position, Zeman’s attitude is not shared by the generally very Russo-sceptic Czech population. It is therefore no surprise that protests against Zeman erupted at celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the ‘Velvet Revolution’. During his speech, he was greeted by a chorus of whistles and booing, and protesters threw eggs at him (one of which hit German president Joachim Gauck who was there as an honorary guest). During a recent trip to Southern Moravia, Zeman was similarly greeted by protesters.

trust in Zeman

According to a recent recent poll by CVVM trust in the president has been falling sharply and to the lowest level since Zeman took office (with his previous low occurring after the 2013 parliamentary elections). Furthermore, the poll was conducted during mid-November and does not take into account the subsequent events and protests. Analysts therefore expect a further drop in the next poll which is being conducted at the moment. The government of Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with which Zeman is in cohabitation) benefits from the protests to some degree. Nevertheless, the fact he openly contradicts government policy has become a problem and threatens the government’s credibility abroad. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has therefore asked Zeman to coordinate his speeches with the government (in this context see also my recent post about presidential speeches Germany). It is unlikely that Zeman will bow to the government’s pressure in this regard. Nevertheless, once the end of his term comes closer (he still has more than three years in office left), he might have to change his behaviour to please his voters and be elected for second term.

Ukraine – Presidency in turbulences

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 March 2014

The recent weeks have seen overwhelmingly fast-paced developments in Ukraine. After months of protests, the conflict between government and protesters escalated and resulted in the deaths of at least 88 people. Government and opposition agreed on the return to the 2004 constitution which curtailed presidential power, yet parliament later moved to oust the president and installed the speaker of parliament as acting head of state. This post will give a brief overview of the developments and explain what changes were introduced with regard to the presidency.

Return to the 2004 constitution

Following the Orange Revolution, parties agreed to amend the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 (before then the country had operated under an amended version of their Soviet constitution). For the most part, these amendment concerned the role of the president. After having been a prime example of a president-parliamentary system under which the prime minister and government was subordinate to the presidency, the 2004 amendments transformed Ukraine’s political system to a Premier-presidential system. In 2010, president Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions reverted these changes by having the Constitutional Court – now staffed with the president’s allies – declare the changes unconstitutional.

The agreement between president and opposition of 21 February included to once again return to the the 2004 version which was confirmed by parliament on the same day. As can be seen in the table above, the differences largely concern presidential power in government formation and dismissal as well as the president’s power to annul government acts. However, the president retains his powerful presidential veto. Given that an absolute 2/3 majority is needed to override a veto but only a relative majority to adopt a version that includes the president’s amendment, the presidency can still dominate the legislative process without much effort.

Ousting of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency

One day after the signing of the aforementioned agreement, parliament surprisingly decided to oust president Yanukovych from office even though it appeared that he would agree to step down by the end of the year and clear the way for early presidential elections. While many media outlets reported that Yanukovych had been impeached, this is not quite correct as parliament failed to follow the procedures laid down in Art. 111 of the Constitution (unaffected by the 2004 amendments). These require that an absolute majority of deputies establishes a special investigatory commission. Following the investigation a 2/3-majority of all deputies must then bring the case to the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court (depending on what the president is accused of). Only if the respective court confirms the constitutionality of the procedure and the allegations can parliament impeach the president with a 3/4-majority of its members.

Results of the vote to oust Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency

While the Ukrainian parliament passed its decision to remove Yanukovych from office with 73% of its members (and with unsuprising absences on the part of Viktor Yanukovych’s ‘party of the Regions’), the vote was thus not an impeachment of the president in the constitutional-legal sense. Admittedly, the actual relevance of this violation is decreasing by the minute – even though Russia uses it as part of their argumentation not to accept the new regime – and will likely be dismissed as a ‘procedural error’ once a new president is elected.

Speaker Oleksander Turchynov as acting president & elections on 25 May

On the same day, parliament also elected the former deputy Prime Minister Oleksander Turchynov as its new speaker. Pursuant to Art 112 of the constitution Turchynov then took over the role of temporary head of state. As acting president Turchynov is forbidden to exercise a number of powers, in particular he cannot:

– convey public addresses to either the Ukrainian people or parliament
– dissolve parliament or set a date for early parliamentary elections
– propose new ministers of foreign affairs and defence, or make appointments to the constitutional court or National Bank
– grant pardons

Parliament also scheduled new presidential elections for 25 May (given the limited powers of an acting president to dissolve parliament this is the necessary precursor to early parliamentary elections). Potential candidates include former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from jail on the same day as the ousting of president Yanukovych, yet whose candidacy is seen with much scepticism among Ukrainians. UDAR-chairman Vitali Klitschko (read more about his presidential ambitions here) might have better chances. His decision to refrain from being part of the new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk was widely interpreted as a move to keep clear of any blame the government might attract over the necessary but painful economic reforms and thus start into the presidential race as a ‘fresh’ candidate.

[N.B.: The post previously stated that a 2/3 majority was needed for the final impeachment vote whereby in fact 3/4 are needed. Thanks to Justin Grove for pointing this out.]

Tweeting politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia & Ukraine – Part 2: Prime Ministers

Tweeting Politicians in Central and Eastern Europe_Part 2 Prime Ministers

Last week, I presented a ranking of tweeting presidents in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia. In the second part in my article series on tweeting politicians in the region, I look at tweeting prime ministers. Keep an eye on the SSEES Research blog where I will be posting a summary of my rankings and a few further thoughts in January next year. Furthermore, make sure to follow me and this blog on twitter (@pres_activism) to keep updated. Again, for the sake of this article I include Russia & Ukraine in the term ‘Central and Eastern Europe’. Continue reading

Tweeting politicians in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia & Ukraine – Part 1: Presidents

Tweeting Politicians in Central and Eastern Europe - Part 1: Presidents

Since Barack Obama’s use of twitter and other social media has been cited as one of the reasons for his succesful campaign in 2008, more and more politicians (or their PR advisors) have discovered the power and advantages of delivering short, 140-character messages to their supporters. The digital revolution has also not left politicians in Central and Eastern Europe unaffected. In this two-part series of blog articles I will therefore survey whether and how politicians in CEE use twitter – and who you should follow. Continue reading