Czech Government loses confidence vote but Zeman wins nonetheless

August 9, 2013

On Wednesday, 7 August, the most recent (but far from the last) act in the grand drama of the protracted political crisis here played itself out in the lower chamber of the Parliament of the Czech Republic. In the late evening hours, after a day-long marathon of negotiations and speechifying, the key vote to express confidence in Jiří Rusnok’s government was held in the lower house. Rusnok’s government, which was appointed by President Miloš Zeman despite the opposition of the parties seated in parliament, did not win the confidence vote, losing 93 – 100. Despite this, the president is still the victor of Wednesday’s battle.

President Zeman has succeeded in just one month – ever since he appointed Jiří Rusnok prime minister – to control the Social Democrats (ČSSD), disorganize the liberal conservatives of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and to completely dominate the political space. 

Taking control of the Social Democrats

Zeman achieved control of the Social Democrats by crushing and degrading ČSSD chair Bohuslav Sobotka. Two weeks before the confidence vote was to take place, Sobotka insisted the Social Democrats would vote against Rusnok. Zeman put enormous pressure on Sobotka through his faithful people inside ČSSD, the party which the president himself was a member of until 2007, as well as its chair for many years. Members of the leadership bodies inside the party, afraid to stand up to Zeman, gradually left Sobotka’s side until the unhappy ČSSD chair was forced to do an about-face and announce the party would support Rusnok’s government after all. What is paradoxical about the whole situation is that Rusnok’s government is essentially government by the Citizen's Rights Party for Zeman (Strana práv občanů ZEMANOVCI - SPOZ), which holds no seats in parliament, and which as its name suggests, was founded by Zeman in 2009. That party is a direct electoral competitor to the Social Democrats.

Disintegration on the Right

Yet another nail in the coffin of the ODS, which was founded by former President Václav Klaus and which dominated the Czech right until recently, was delivered by two ODS MPs just before the vote of confidence in Rusnok’s government. It is not clear what truly motivated the two to deviate from the party line at the last moment. Not only did they not vote against the government (they left the room), but they torpedoed the possibility of returning to the previous right-wing coalition, which until that moment still enjoyed a close majority of 101 MPs out of 200 in parliament. For right-wing voters, this lack of unity within ODS is even more motivation to support the TOP 09 party in the next elections, which is doing its best to push ODS out of its position as the main force on the right.

TOP 09 really did immediately grab the opportunity to push through early elections by dissolving the lower house without seeming to act as a destabilizing element. Even though TOP 09 voted against dissolving the lower house when ČSSD called for such a vote in mid-July, thanks to the two disobedient ODS MPs it can now reference the de facto collapse of the former coalition and look forward to early elections in which its rival on the right, ODS, will be significantly weakened.

Early elections?

But will there be early elections at all? Jiří Rusnok will tender his resignation to the president now that the lower house has expressed no confidence in his government, but Miloš Zeman has already made it clear that he is in no hurry. The status quo suits the president fabulously, because it furnishes him with power as well as with time in which to strengthen his wing inside ČSSD, through which he will want to maintain influence even after the elections. TOP 09 may be prepared to support dissolving the lower house, but it is not completely certain whether the Social Democrats (or a critical proportion of their MPs) won’t change their minds between now and then and let the president’s government stay in office until May of next year, when the regular elections are scheduled to take place (whether Rusnok would rule in demise or whether Zeman entrusts the office of the prime minister to someone new).

Ironically, this last variant would benefit the Czech Green Party (Strana zelených - SZ) because it would provide the party sufficient time to prepare for the elections. In addition to a collapsing Right, the intervening months would likely result in a decline in voter preference for the Left too, whether that be because of the unavoidable lack of unity inside ČSSD or the dubious legitimacy of Zeman’s attempt to transform the Czech political system into a semi-presidential one. However, the SZ leadership considers early elections to be the best solution for the future of the country and the development of recent weeks indicate they are right.

Rusnok’s government initiated extensive personnel changes in the ministries and in companies that are either wholly or partially owned by the state even prior to the lower house’s vote of confidence - and even though it was never elected by anyone. Sources close to the president indicate that those changes are only the beginning. However, rather than being an effort to purge the ministries and state-owned enterprises of corruption, these activities impress most of the public as a continuation of clientelism and state capture by a business-political network that redirects public finance, only this time in a different direction. Zeman’s people are also saying they would like to end “inefficient support for renewable energy”, support mining, heavy and fossil industry and realize megalomaniac projects like the Odra-Danube canal or the construction of a new bloc at the Temelín nuclear power plant.

Opportunity for the Greens?

Whether early elections take place this October or whether the regular elections take place next May, one thing is certain:  President Zeman has created a very strong power center which is not just projecting power through the Office of the President, but also in Parliament through the ČSSD. Thanks to this fact, the Social Democrats are turning away from their previous heading toward becoming a modern left-wing party and are returning to the embrace of business interests and the inflexibly conservative social policy of the last century. In addition to the president and his people both inside and outside the Social Democrats, the only other party with reason for optimism now is TOP 09, whose highly unpopular number two, Miroslav Kalousek (who is artfully concealing himself behind the popular chair of the party, Karel Schwarzenberg) has been positioned in the role of Zeman’s only rival, which means he must be the savior of parliamentary democracy and a champion of the Right. Be that as it may, the citizens’ resentment of politics in general and the current right wing parties in particular is so strong that it is furnishing an extraordinary opportunity for the Green Party to score good results should it manage to offer itself as a trustworthy alternative that would implement specific systemic measures to improve the way Czech politics operates. For the time being, however, it seems that voters have stopped believing in any “saviors” from parties not seated in parliament, and many of them are either eschewing elections and politics altogether or out of desperation and disillusionment are turning to either populists such as Zeman or to political extremes.

Šádí Shanaáh, program coordinator at Heinrich Böll Foundation office in Prague.