Once sedate and dull, Czech politics has recently been serving up non-stop political drama. First, October’s parliamentary elections dealt a shattering, but not fatal, blow to established parties.
Then the election winner, the billionaire-politician and fraud indictee, Andrej Babiš struggled to form a government with any of the other eight parties in parliament opted instead in December to form a minority administration with uncertain prospects (it faces a vote of confidence tomorrow). Now creeping up on us after a low-key campaign come the Czech presidential elections, whose first round takes place on 12-13 January.
The relatively low profile of the election is partly down to the incumbent. Having announced in March that he would run for a second term, president Miloš Zeman has opted for a Czech version of the Rose Garden Strategy by officially not campaigning, refusing to give pre-election interviews or appear in debates with other candidates; and according to his transparent online campaign account spending pretty much zilch.
The reality is that for many months presidential visits to regions and provincial towns, fielding undemanding questions from generally sympathetic crowds, have served as a surrogate, under-the-radar campaign.
Zeman’s non-campaign now also features expensive-looking billboard and newspaper advertising to elect Zeman Again (Zeman znovu) paid for by the Friends of Miloš Zeman – a previously dormant civic association founded in 2008 to relaunch Zeman from political retirement.
To some extent, these tactics seems to reflect Zeman’s state of health. Although rumours of cancer and other life-threatening conditions has been vigorously rebutted, the president suffers diabetes and a nerve condition – possibly arising as a complication – affecting his legs which visibly limits his mobility. The president’s alcohol and tobacco consumption have also long been a source of concern to his doctors.
In other ways, however, Zeman’s semi-visible campaign is a shrewd political move. For supporters Zeman is a flawed, but decent politician, who stands up for the interests of ordinary people outside the better-off world of Prague and big cities and also sticks up for Czech national interests. For his many detractors Zeman is a boorish authoritarian illiberal nationalist and a national embarrassment, tarnishing the Czech Republic’s good name.
As well as lapses of decorum such as appearing drunk at ceremonial occasion and using the c-word in a radio broadcast, Zeman has shared a platform with fringe anti-Islamic extremists and come out as the only EU head of state to publicly endorse Donald Trump before the US elections in 2016.
More worrying still has been his cavalier attitude to the Czech constitution. His appointment in 2013 of a presidential caretaker government of supposed technocrats over the heads of political parties flouted previous constitutional practice. He has at various times, suggested that, creatively interpreted, the constitution could him allow him to dismiss the government; leave ministers in office following a prime minister’s resignation; or leave his ally prime minister Andrej Babiš in office, rather than dissolve parliament if all three constitutionally allowed attempts at forming a government were exhausted.
Polls suggest, however, Zeman, who has been picking up support since the launch of the December billboard, has a solid base of support predominantly among poorer, older, more left-wing, less well-educated Czechs. He is likely to top the first-round poll by a clear margin with 43-44% of the vote, but may face a stiffer contest in the second, run-off round on 26-27 January.
As in the first direct presidential elections in 2013, Zeman faces eight challengers. However, this year political parties have taken a back seat. Many have realised that they simply lack a broad enough appeal or any credible enough candidates to have a serious run at the presidency.
The one party that could have done so, Andrej Babiš’s ANO movement – said at one time to have considered running the popular defence minister (now foreign minister) Martin Stropnický for presidency – chose not to do so: for Babiš keeping to his informal pact with Zeman and getting into government were by the important priorities. If, as expected, his new minority administration loses its upcoming parliamentary vote of confidence, Zeman will play a key role by re-nominating Babiš as prime minister for a second, and probably decisive, effort a forming a government.
All of but two of Zeman’s challengers are thus non-party independents running on vague centrist or centre-right platforms – the two exceptions being the candidate of the tiny, populist Common Sense party Petr Hannig and Jiří Hynek of the Realists, a well-funded but peripheral conservative grouping. Former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, who headed a Civic Democrat-led (ODS) governments of 2006-9, running as independent, also seems to be attracting some backing from parts of his former party, helped by outspoken attacks on Zeman questioning the president’s health.
Polls suggest, however, that Zeman has only two serious challengers: Jiri Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, and the journalist, lyricist and music producer turned betting tycoon and philanthropist, Michal Horáček. Although Horáček has waged a slicker campaign, most polls show him in third place with Drahoš the clear favourite to make it into the run-off against Zeman on 26-27 January.
Although keeping a (for him) low profile, Miloš Zeman has had a good campaign. He has been picking up support following the launch of December’s billboard campaign with bookmakers’ odds making him the clear favourite and little sign of his rivals generating much momentum or public excitement.
However, polls still suggest that Zeman will lose by a clear margin in a run-off against Drahoš, who is forecast to gain most of the first round votes cast for other candidates – emulating a strategy seen in presidential elections in Slovakia and Romania in 2014, when previously little-known independents overhauled seemingly dominant left-wing populists in the second round.
Throughout Drahoš has cultivated a centrist and non-confrontational image, telling interviewers that he had a vision, but no political programme. He also made clear that – while he wouldn’t have appointed Andrej Babiš prime minister without fraud charges hanging over him breing resolved – he saw as a mainstream politician with a clear electoral mandate whose government deserved the backing of other mainstream parties.
Zeman will, therefore, be hoping that his non-campaign has been well pitched enough to rally his core support among poorer, older, less well-educated Czechs, while leaving diverse groups of voters opposed to him unmobilised. His most likely path to victory would be to get enough votes behind him to narrowly win the election outright in the first round. The fact that his key challengers are offering only dignified public personas and good CVs, rather than any compelling positive vision of a liberal and outward looking Czechia may turn out to be Zeman’s greatest asset.
On 13 December, Czech President Miloš Zeman formally appointed a minority government led by the billionaire-politician Andrej Babiš, whose ANO movement emerged as the clear winner of parliamentary elections on 20-21 October, gaining 78 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies.
The October elections saw no fewer than nine parties (including ANO) gain representation in the Czech parliament, producing a highly fragmented political landscape with no credible alternative to an ANO-led government: the second largest party, the centre-right Civic Democrats (ODS) held only 25 seats
Given ANO’s broadly centrist position, a range of ideologically coherent coalitions should, in principle, have been possible.
Babiš himself indicated that he preferred a two-party coalition with the Civic Democrats, but would be willing to enter government with his partners from the outgoing coalition, the Social Democrats (ČSSD) and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), the small independents grouping STAN or the left-liberal Pirate Party (ČPS), who entered parliament for the first time in October. He ruled out the Communists, the radical right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) grouping and the liberal, pro-European TOP09, whose (then) leader Miroslav Kalousek was a persistent and forthright critic.
However, it quickly became apparent, that none of these potential partners were willing to enter a led a Babiš-led government. Read More…
There is only one major issue in the Czech Republic’s upcoming elections on 20-21 October – and his name is Andrej Babiš.
Since bursting onto the political scene – and straight into government – at the 2013 elections, the Slovak-born agri-food billionaire and his ambitions have defined Czech politics in the last five years. Having spent four years as junior partner in acrimonious coalition government with the Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD) and the smaller Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) and consistently topped every poll since early 2014 – Babiš and ANO his movement now seem set to win next weekend’s election by a considerable margin.
Polls suggest ANO will receive just under 30% of the vote, despite Babiš and several associates from his Agrofert conglomerate being implicated in and then formally charged with embezzling some two million euro in EU subsides intended for SMEs in 2008 for Babiš’s showpiece ‘Stork’s Nest’ eco-farm, by concealing its real ownership. As in 2013 Babiš and ANO are pitching themselves as non-ideological citizens’ movement doing battle with corrupt and ineffective ‘traditional parties’ – who Mr Babiš says have hamstrung him in government, victimised him with bogus anti-corruption probes and accusations of wrongdoing which led to his ousting as finance minister in May.
ANO thus seems set to become the dominant force in an otherwise fragmented political landscape: none of the seven other parties projected to enter the Chamber of Deputies is likely to exceed 15 per cent support. Read More…
Having struggled in the role of Ed Miliband playing 2015 version – though doing better than the real Ed in getting a hung parliament – I again stepped into the shoes of an embattled an Labour leader, this time Jeremy Corbyn.
I tried to play like the real Jez running a generally positive campaign focusing on policies for health and education with an occasional jab at the Tories for being champions of austerity and enemies of public services.
As in real life, however, things didn’t go to plan. A couple of weeks in, the polls had Labour stuck under 30% with predictions of Tory landslide of 400 seats – and the worthy policy speeches of Corbyn-me simply not cutting through in terms of media coverage.
Having started off optimistically venturing into a few Conservative marginals, I quickly found myself like the real world Corbyn retreating to heartlands the north of England and Wales, visiting places like Hartlepool, Hyndburn and Middlesbrough, trying to stop the possible loss of supposedly safe seats to the Tories. Read More…
The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.
In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.
The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.
Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’
But, in fact, it was not. Read More…
Czech voters go to the polls in early parliamentary elections on 25-26 October. The elections follow the collapse, amid personal and political scandal, of the centre-right government of Petr Nečas in June, and the subsequent failure of President Zeman’s handpicked caretaker administration to win a vote of confidence.
At one level the election seems set to deliver a simple and straightforward verdict,: established opposition parties on the left will win, while governing right-wing parties will be heavily rejected by an electorate frustrated with austerity, stagnating living standards and sleaze. The main opposition Czech Social Democrats (ČSSD), most polls have suggested, will emerge as the clear winners with around 25-30 per cent of the vote, although the final polls published before voting have suggested that the party’s support is starting to slide. Meanwhile the hardline Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) is likely to pull in 15-20 per cent.
The polls also point to a defeat of historic proportions for the right-wing parties of the former coalition. The Civic Democrats (ODS) (formerly led by Nečas) have proved surprisingly deft in trying to pull back from the brink: the party picked Miroslava Němcová, one of its few leaders untainted by corruption – and the first woman to head a major Czech party – as the party’s new public face and have run an inventive (and occasionally witty) Twitter-led election campaign.
But voters have remained largely unimpressed and the ODS seems set to see the 20 per cent support it received in the 2010 elections – then its worst ever performance – halved, relegating it to minor party status. Some polls put the ODS as low as 6.5 per cent, close to the 5 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation. The Chart below gives an indication of the latest polling.
ODS’s main centre-right rival TOP09 has, however, failed to capitalise on the troubles of its former coalition partner. Instead, it has waged a pedestrian election campaign and has no prospect of repeating its success in this year’s presidential election, when TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg united a broad swathe of liberal and centre-right voters against the left-wing challenge of Miloš Zeman. Most polls suggest the party will struggle to match the 16 per cent it polled in 2010
Many voters have turned to new parties and extra-parliamentary groupings. Niche parties such as the Greens and Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), ‘personal parties’ such as the Civic Rights Party (SPOZ) of President Zeman or the Eurosceptic nationalist ‘Heads Up’ bloc endorsed by Václav Klaus have picked up sufficient support to put them within shouting distance of the five per cent hurdle.
So too has the populist Dawn of Direct Democracy movement of a businessman-turned-politician Tomio Okamura. Okamura, who first came to prominence as a judge on the Czech TV’s version of Dragon’s Den in 2010, has gained profile through his fierce attacks against the political class, socially populist rhetoric and baiting of the Roma minority using his unusual Czecho-Japanese background to deny accusations of racism
The most telling impact, however, has been made by ANO2011 the anti-corruption movement led by the Slovak-born billionaire Andrej Babiš, which has moved in a few weeks from relative obscurity to opinion ratings comfortably in excess of 10 per cent and is now regularly outpolling ODS and TOP09. Read More…
If as British prime-minister Harold Wilson famously commented, a week is a long time in politics, then a month can be an eternity.
This is certainly the case in the Czech Republic, where both anti-corruption probe that spectacularly brought down the government of prime minister Nečas in May and technocratic caretaker government that President Zeman imposed on a less than enthusiatic parliament have largely collaped.
The Czech Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of parliamentary immunity of 26 July saw most of the key dramatis personnae from the political world released from jail and charges withdrawn. It remains to be seen whether lines investigation focusing on the affairs of politically-connected business ‘godfathers’ or the misuse of military intelligence to monitor the then prime minister’s wife lead anywhere, but so little has been heard.
Meanwhile on 7 August as expected, Miloš Zeman’s handpicked ‘government of experts’ under former finance minister Jiří Rusnok failed to win a vote of confidence in parliament. The real story, however, was the disunity of centre-right parties, whose claims they still had a parliamentary majority – and hence a claim to go on governing– were shot to pieces by the failure of three right-wing deputies to vote against Rusnok, the culprits being two Civic Democrat deputies with previous form and the mercurial Karolina Peake, leader of the tiny LIDEM party.
As political reality dawned on the right, discussion moved at breakneck speed to early elections as centre-right parties agreed to vote with the Social Democrats to dissolve parliament to bring about the early elections left-wing parties claimed they really had always wanted all along.
Parliament votes tomorrow (20 August) and – despite some speculation from the Zeman camp and some journalists that dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies may not, after all, be a done deal – it seems likely that the Czech Republic will be heading for early elections in October.
There seems little doubt about who will win (the left) and lose (the right), but the prospect nevertheless raises some crucial questions about the future shape of Czech politics. Read More…
The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.
Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.
But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change. Read More…
Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.
Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Right Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.
Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians. The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent and – while I’d always fancied Zeman (politically I mean) most commentators including me had written Schwarzenberg’s challenge off. Indeed, I thought those who even mentioned him as outsider possibility were well off the mark. Read More…
The political return of former Social Democrat leader and leading presidential hopeful Miloš Zeman has been one of the more surprising emerging-from-under-the -radar phenomena in Czech politics over the past couple of years.
For most observers of Czech politics Zeman was something of a historical figure, linked with the early years of transiton and the political battles of 1990s. Having shifted the Czech Social Democrats from a minor party to one of the big players in early-mid 1990s by making them a robust party of opposition, Zeman won a notable election victory in 1998, did a deal with his erstwhile nemesis Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government and served one term as Prime Minister (1998-2002) and then retired to his cottage in the Vysočina highlands.
Retirement seems not to have suited him and still nursing political ambitions – and much to the horror of many former colleagues – he won a ‘primary’ among Social Democrat supporters to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2003. Alas as the Czech head of state was still indirectly elected by MPs and senators at the time, enough Social Democrat parliamentarians failed to vote for him that he was humiliatingly eliminated from this contest early on (Vaclav Klaus was finally elected and then re-elected for a second term in 2008).
Zeman then finally parted company with his former party, wrote some splenetic, best-selling memoirs attacking ex-colleagues – memorably described by one academic reviewer as a ‘foul fart of a book’ – and it seemed that that was the last we would hear of him. The cigarette-smoking, beer- and becherovka drinking Zeman, known for his ponderous quotes, not very funny bonmoty and bruisingly effective political personality was set to become just another memory of 1990s.
But come 2013, if the latest and last polls are to be believed, Zeman is the front runner in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential elections, edging ahead of one-time favourite Jan Fischer, the former prime minister in the 2009-10 technocratic caretaker government. As Klaus steps down, Zeman steps up. We seem set for Fischer-Zeman second round run-off on 25-26 January. And even if Zeman unites a huge swathe of right-wing voters behind Fischer, given the left-leaning inclination of the Czech electorate he must surely be in with a shouting chance of taking over at Prague Castle on 7 March.
How has this happened when so many other would-be comebacks and political vanity projects fail? Just think of the stillborn LEV21 party of Zeman’s one time rival and fellow semi-detached ex-Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek.
Several factors seem to have combined in Zeman’s favour:
1. He is well known
For many voters. as well as being a known quantity. Zeman’s big political personality and experience as Prime Minister makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws – the embarrassing off the cuff remarks, off jokes and occasional lack of political energy – are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.
Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement deal with Klaus, from a left-wing point of the point of view Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat. Almost the only Czech prime minister to do so (caretakers excepted).
2.He is a reasonably plausible outsider
At the same time, having been out of national politics for the best part of a decade and broken his links with the Social Democrats, Zeman can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.
His presidential run comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when the Social Democrats could no find no experienced, high profile politician to stand for head of state (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – former EU Commissioner Vladimír Špidla might have been an option). (Indeed, the Social Democrats seem rather short of big charismatic leaders generally just now. The current party leader Bohumil Sobotka is articulate and intelligent, but as someone acidly commented at a recent conference I went to comes across more as a spokesman than a leader.)
Lukewarm semi-endorsement by old rival Václav Klaus might even pull in a few voters from the right – although like Klaus such ‘naughty right-wingers’ will probably be expressing their dislike for the various centre-right and centrists candidates more than wanting to propel Zeman to office.
3. His support is well organised and well financed
Although there are questions over where Zeman’s political money comes from, with widely reported links to the Russian oil company Lukoil (denied by Zeman) and other Russian donors (not denied). Whatever the truth, the Zeman campaign has sufficient resources and organisation to be effective – and it started organising early. The Citizen’s Rights Party – Zemanites (of which Zeman is oddly only the honorary leader) was formed in October 2009 and contested the May 2010 parliamentary elections, pulling in a not negligible 4.33% – seemingly all at the expense of the Social Democrats – which was almost enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament. SPOZ’s origins, in fact, go back some years earlier to the curiously named, Friends of Miloš Zeman association, run by Zeman’s former right-hand man and the ex-communist apparatchik Miroslav Šlouf.
Despite clearly having cash to splash, SPOZ – as its reasonably solid performance in the October 2012 regional elections showed – also has organisation on the ground. The collection of 50,000 signature petition to nominate Zeman was also a notably quick and efficient operation. Šlouf and various other ex-Social Democrats in SPOZ are not political amateurs.
4. He has potentially broad appeal
While disliked and dismissed on the right, Zeman is acceptable to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to the Social Democrats or with associations to Havel or the dissident movement. The Social Democrats official candidate Jirí Dienstbier jr. – son of the late dissident of the same name – has fought a shrewd campaign positioning himself a moderate, modern politician and actively solicited the support of the Communist Party (KSČM – which for once is not running its own candidate). Despite, this Dienstbier is off the pace and you wonder how many Communist voters might hold his family background against him.
Zeman is less difficult for the party and has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSČM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU – he is he says a Euro federalist but against an EU superstate (work that one out) – and demands for additional funding if he flies the EU flag at Prague Castle.
5. He has been underestimated
Finally, that most telling of political assets: Zeman has been underestimated by opponents. Despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010. He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon. Somehow despite everything, for many it is hard to believe that he could really actually win.
Despite a slow build up media scrutiny about funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little scrunitny or critical opposition in the campaign. Certainly few questions have been as to one what kind of a president he would be. Until the recent efforts of civic initiatives to boost the campaign of Foreign Minister and TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their real time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.
What kind of President would Zeman be?
His website offers only a selection of bland, somewhat fence-sitting views. His statements suggest he is still broadly on the mainstream pro-European centre-left and would be considerably less toxic to many abroad than Klaus. He was even one of only three presidential candidates to accept an invitation to a debate organised by Prague Gay Pride (two refused). On the other hand his denouncing of Islam as an ‘anti-civilization’ could have come straight from Geert Wilders.
Perhaps we will have to wait for 7 March to find out…