On 21 August 2013, news coverage in the Czech Republic focused mainly on two stories: One was analysis and commentary on the 20 August decision to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies; the other recalled the day exactly 45 years earlier when Warsaw Pact troops invaded the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
An answer to weeks of conflict
The vote, which came as an answer to weeks of conflict between President Zeman and the Chamber of Deputies, was more than definite: 140 MPs voted for the motion to dissolve, and seven voted against. The first Social Democrat-initiated attempt to dissolve the lower house of the Czech parliament failed only in mid-July. The reasons for the now positive result are clear: The government of Jiří Rusnok, which Czech President Zeman appointed unilaterally, did not pass a confidence vote on 7 August. Moreover, it had become evident that the former governing coalition (ODS, TOP 09, LIDEM) no longer held a majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Immediately following the failed confidence motion, President Zeman stressed that he was in no hurry to make a second attempt to form a government, and that Rusnok’s cabinet would continue to govern even after the latter’s resignation. The Rusnok government made key personnel changes in state institutions shortly after its appointment. The Constitution imposes no time limit on the president with regard to a second attempt to form a government. TOP 09 (chaired by Karel Schwarzenberg) then announced that it would now vote to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies in order to clear the way for early elections. In addition, the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the Communists and several other MPs voted in favour. MPs of the former governing party ODS left the chamber in protest except for Miroslava Němcová, speaker of the now dissolved lower house of parliament. The ODS objected that due to the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies, the passage of important laws would no longer be possible. The decisive factor for the ODS protest may be first and foremost the fact that the party is currently polling at around 13 per cent; in 2010, the ODS won 20.22 per cent of votes cast. The party is obviously not interested in early elections, as it is currently experiencing a deep crisis.
Zeman the strategist
These events have strengthened Czech President Zeman in particular. Even though “his” cabinet did not pass a vote of confidence, he now stresses that, thanks to his actions, new elections were called as early as they could have been. Zeman has the gift of always interpreting events to his own advantage. This includes a strategic aptitude to engineer conflicts in such a way that this space for interpretation arises. Many citizens seem to like Zeman’s political style. Zeman, as he likes to emphasise, sees himself as “president of the lower ten million” (the Czech Republic has 10 million residents). He is thus anything but a non-partisan president. In 2007, he left the ČSSD and founded the party SPOZ (Party of Civic Rights – Zemanovci) which he chaired until 2010. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, the SPOZ received 4.33 per cent, thus falling just short of the five-per-cent threshold. Today, Zeman is still its honorary chairman. Like Zeman, his chief of staff, Vratislav Mynář, is a former chairman of the SPOZ and may stand as an SPOZ candidate. Zeman sees no problem with his chief of staff’s possible candidacy. As chief of staff, Zeman insists, Mynář must be above party politics, but as a citizen he has the right to stand as a candidate for the party of his choice.
The timing of the elections
At a press conference on 23 August, Zeman announced that he would confirm the dissolution of parliament on 28 August and the resulting early elections would take place on 25 and 26 October. On 28 October, the Czech Republic commemorates the establishment of democratic Czechoslovakia in 1918. Since this day falls on a Monday this year and is a public holiday, many voters will opt to take a long weekend rather than going to the polls. This will very likely affect mainly urban and undecided constituencies. It is no secret that the urban milieu favours the parties which are a thorn in Zeman’s side.
A two-month campaign
This campaign will not only be brief, but also fiercely contested.
The ODS and TOP 09 – former partners in the governing coalition – are campaigning not only for their voters, but also for the leadership of the conservative camp. In addition, Václav Klaus is presently considering a return to Czech politics. Former MEP Jana Bobošíková, who never misses an opportunity to fulminate against deeper European integration, announced in the media that she would do everything in her power see a return of Václav Klaus. Bobošíková went on to say that she could imagine her party, Suverenita-blok J. Bobošíkové (J. Bobošíková’s Sovereignty Block), being renamed “SUPR Klausovci” (SUPR is derived from SUverenita (“sovereignty”) and PRosperita (“prosperity”), and Klausovci means “followers of Klaus”). Klaus will announce his decision in the coming days. In the 2010 elections, Suverenita-blok J. Bobošíkové received 3.67 per cent of votes cast.
Within the Czech Social Democratic Party, the two wings backing Bohuslav Sobotka and Michal Hašek, respectively, are locked in a fierce power struggle in which Zeman is interfering. While current party chairman Bohuslav Sobotka seeks to modernise the party, his statutory deputy, Michal Hašek – who is close to President and former ČSSD Chairman Zeman, embodies an unequivocally retro course. In a secret vote initiated by the Hašek camp on 24 August, the party’s “Central Executive Committee” – its highest body between party conferences – nominated Chairman Sobotka as ČSSD’s candidate for the post of prime minister with only 57 per cent of the vote. For comparison, Sobotka was confirmed as party chairman with 84 per cent of the vote during ČSSD’s party conference in spring 2013.
The Czech Greens
While the timing of the elections is not optimal for the Greens, as there is not much time to prepare their campaign, they too declared their support for early elections as the best way out of the political crisis. The Greens’ deputy chairman and a former environment minister, Martin Bursík, left the party on 23 August citing fears that the Greens could become a part of a Zeman-directed “Left Front”. Party Chairman Ondřej Liška dismissed this possibility categorically. For months, Ondřej Liška has openly and vehemently criticised Zeman’s actions as well as his motives. In their campaign, the Czech Greens would like to appeal to voters seeking a sensible alternative to the parties currently represented in parliament. They hold nearly 400 seats at the communal level, and also made gains in the 2012 regional and Senate elections. Independent Senator and former Constitutional Court judge Eliška Wagnerová ran as a Green candidate, and the Greens also supported the candidacy of Senator Libor Michálek.
Zeman will be Zeman
It remains to be seen how the election will turn out, but one thing is clear even today: Zeman will continue to influence the course of Czech politics, interpreting the Constitution as it suits him. He will not observe Constitutional conventions which he himself deems “idiotic”. In addition, he will cast himself as the arbiter and advocate of all citizens whom he believes are in danger of being duped by legislators. On 23 August, Zeman mentioned in front of rolling cameras that he would fully respect the results of the early elections. Zeman went on to say that, if TOP 09 were to win the election and to recommend Miroslav Kalousek as prime minister, he would appoint Kalousek as prime minister. If a coalition between TOP 09 and ČSSD were to arise, Zeman went on, he would not appoint any representative of the two parties as prime minister, as he would deem such a coalition to be a betrayal of these parties’ voters. Moreover, Zeman continued, the parties should respect the outcome of the preferential votes – especially the party that wins the election. This is a nod in the direction of ČSSD, which currently leads all the polls: In the 2010 elections, Michal Hašek overtook Bohuslav Sobotka’s placement on his constituency’s candidate list. How Zeman intends to “fully respect the election results” when he has already signalled a desire to dictate possible coalitions and to prescribe the strongest party’s choice of prime minister remains a mystery.
On 28 October, on the occasion of the state holiday, it is traditional for the president to recognise individuals for their engagement and achievements. This event in Prague Castle’s Vladislav Hall will be broadcast live. Viewers can brace themselves for a Zeman speech that will pack a punch and comment on the election outcome from the president’s point of view.
English Translation: Petra and Evan Mellander