Czech Republic: Miloš Zeman’s year of living dangerously

Miloš Zeman Rozhlas 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC-BY-SA-3.0

The election campaign that propelled Miloš Zeman to the Czech presidency a year ago was a mixture of boundless self-belief, disregard for political convention and ruthless targeting of opponents.

Zeman’s first year in office has seen him bring these self-same qualities to bear in a concerted drive to remake the Czech political system, revealing a hitherto unsuspected taste for political risk-taking.

The net effect, however, has been far from Zeman intended. His initiatives have wreaked a trail of political destruction, felling both friend and foe alike and leaving the president himself politically damaged and deeply unpopular.

As an exercise in short-term tactics the imposition of a handpicked caretaker government under ex-finance minister Jiří Rusnok was a master-stroke, blindsiding the country’s parties and finally killing off the centre-right coalition.

But Zeman’s hubris and taste for the political coup de main quickly rebounded.

The Czech Republic is not Ukraine and its constitution was not so easily buckled into a semi-presidential system. A caretaker ‘government of officials’ (úřednická vláda) without a parliamentary majority can do only so much and survive in office for only so long.

Zeman’s grandiose visions of reuniting the Czech left and willingness to bend constitutional norms to pressurise opponents also concealed the lack of a well calibrated strategy. And more often than not the president’s blunderbuss tactics proved most deadly to his own supporters.

 Attempts to sell the Rusnok and his fellow ministers to the public as a team of neutral experts were a ham-fisted failure, helping merely to undermine the once-promising pro-presidential party of ‘Zemanites’, SPOZ. Interventions in ČSSD were similarly maladroit, culminating in a clumsy post-election coup which saw Zeman’s well-placed supporters in ČSSD (at least temporarily) routed.

A year on Zeman has succeeded to shaking up the Czech political scene. But as the dust settles,  the charismatic leader emerging amid the wreckage of the battered and slowly unwinding Czech party system is not, as the president might have hoped Miloš Zeman– but the billionaire populist Andrej Babiš whose ANO party stormed to success in the early parliamentary elections which finally took place in October.

On the European stage, Zeman has surprised much less.  Here, so far he has delivered on his most important political asset: he is not Václav Klaus and stands squarely in the mainstream on European integration. While Zeman’s personal reputation may never quite recover from last May’s embarrassing incident at the ceremonial unveiling of the Bohemian Crown Jewels when many thought he appeared drunk, but raising the EU flag at Prague Castle sent a powerful signal about the direction of the Czech Republic.

Similarly, few in Europe will begrudge Zeman his unfunny jokes, grumpy remarks about EU policies promoting energy saving light bulbs or his appetite for tussling with domestic rivals over the specifics of European policy. What matters more is that, unlike Klaus, Zeman has made clear that he is a head of state with a serious and hard headed commitment to securing the Czech Republic’s position in the core EU, who will sign up to the euro, the Fiscal Pact and the emerging structures of a new European economic government.

Zeman has also done well to keep one set of political ideas largely under wraps:  his controversial views on Islam, perhaps the one area with the most potential to damage the Czech Republic internationally and relegate the president, like his predecessor, to being a maverick figure in European politics.

Czechs may want to hope that, if their president still has a taste for political danger, he keeps it firmly confined to domestic politics.

A Czech version of this piece was published in Hospodářské noviny on 7 March.

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