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Zeman’s Power-Play

June 24, 2013 - Mitchell Belfer - Bez kategorii

To the casual observer, last week’s corruption scandal which gripped the Czech Republic, forced Petr Nečas (a.k.a. “Mr. Clean” to his anti-corruption platform) from the premiership and plunged the country into an acute political crisis was nothing more than a slight departure from the norm. After all, corruption is rife and a wide assortment of political personalities, wearing a wide assortment of political colours, are currently languishing in prison or are on the lamb.

So when Nečas was found cowering in his doctor’s office, when his cabinet chief and mistress, Jana Nagyova, was detained, when 150 million Czech crowns (roughly six million euros) in cash and tens of kilogrammes of gold bars were seized, the Czech public was scandalised, but not stupefied.

But this latest scandal is different. It will forever change the course of Czech political life and set in motion the erosion of the parliamentary system and its replacement with a presidential one.

The writing was on the wall; throughout (former) President Václav Klaus’s two terms in office Nečas had been agitating for increased powers and consistently worked to undermine parliamentary decisions, alienated the Czech Republic from its European Union partners and adopted absurd populist narratives – such as the equation that feminists and environmentalists were 21st century Nazis – for the sole purpose of enhancing his reputation. But his turn never really came.

Miloš Zeman is more fortunate. Being the first president popularly elected – previous presidents were appointed by parliament – he believes that a mandate to govern was publicly bestowed on him even though he is a very polarising figure. So, when the Nečas scandal broke, Zeman wasted no time in placing himself at the centre of attention. Certainly, he is not (yet) extending beyond the current role of president, but neither is he attempting to assuage public anxieties or limit the public relations damage done. If anything, he is encouraging its spiralling.

Consider that, in order to overcome the current impasse, only three options have been tabled; two of these are entirely dependent on Zeman.

Option 1 is for Zeman to name a new prime minister, who would form a new government. While the expected candidate is Mirka Němcová, the current Speaker of the House, the idea that the political status quo is preserved without public inputs or scrutiny sits uncomfortably with many, especially since the appointment would be made by Zeman after closed-doors negotiations.

Option 2 is for Zeman to call for new elections, which if held, would push the Czech Republic to the left since the social democrats (CSSD) and communists (KSČM) are currently located in pole position. Zeman may be ideologically situated on the left but he owes his political career to Klaus and the civic democrats (ODS), and is therefore unlikely to call for such elections.

Option 3 is for a provisional technocratic government to be formed with Zeman at its helm. If agreed, this would last until the scheduled elections in May 2014.

With two options directly bolstering Zeman’s position, it is difficult not to assume that this entire affair is nothing more than an orchestrated attempt by Zeman to assume greater powers for himself and, ultimately, for the office of president. It is equally difficult not to assume that Zeman will push hard for the realisation of the third option since it will provide him the chance to show the Czech public that he is a capable presidential leader.

Zeman’s power-play is more subtle however. He will not play his trump card quite yet. Instead, Zeman will probably push for Němcová to assume prime ministerial responsibilities; doing so will further strengthen his position to call in favours later. Zeman may, wrongly, believe that empowering Němcová will endear him to the Czech public, which is looking for the quick return to normality and political stability, and is unwilling to shoulder the costs of yet another expensive election.

Ultimately, whether referring to Zeman or Klaus, Němcová or Nečas, discussions centre on the political elite. Czech civil society is being ostracised and placated and its demands ignored. If the Czech Republic is to weather this storm and maintain its robust parliamentary system, instead of allowing the slow, but steady, transformation to a presidential one, a more politically active community must be formed and included in decision making processes.

Closed door and opaque political activities are no longer in sync with the demands of the 21st century citizen. It is clear that 24 years removed from the fall of the communism, the Czechs surely deserve better than what they currently have.

Mitchell Belfer is head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague, and editor in chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS).

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