The Czech President Eyes a Post-Election Power Grab

PRAGUE, Czech Republic—President Milos Zeman’s decision last week to sign legislation that blocks Russia and China from involvement in the Czech nuclear industry came as a surprise given Zeman’s efforts to deepen ties with Moscow and Beijing. The move was likely a tactical retreat by the cunning head of state, who expects upcoming parliamentary elections on Oct. 8 and 9 to hand him significant influence over the next government.  

Although polls suggest the country is split down the middle, with support divided equally between illiberal populist and pro-democratic forces, Zeman has already said he plans to use the constitutional power of his office to reappoint populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis. 

According the last polls allowed ahead of the vote, published Monday, Babis’ ANO party leads the field with around 25 percent support. However, with the party’s populist allies struggling to meet the 5 percent threshold required to enter Parliament, the billionaire tycoon has little chance of putting together a majority coalition.

With two opposition coalitions—the center-right Spolu and the center-left Pirates and Mayors—polling at around 20 percent each, the “democratic bloc”—as they’ve labeled themselves collectively—has a chance at winning control of 101 of Parliament’s 200 seats. 

Yet even should the pair seal a joint majority, it would be unlikely to affect Zeman’s decision. He’s been busy testing the boundaries of his largely ceremonial office for years in a bid to secure influence over the government and steer the country, a member of both the European Union and NATO, eastward. He views the election as key to that ambition and appears ready to ride roughshod over Czech democracy in pursuit of it.

“The president’s behavior has been, and maybe will be again, against the spirit of parliamentary democracy and a distortion of the Czech constitution,” says Lubomir Kopecek, a professor at Masaryk University in Brno, the country’s second-largest city. 

The constitution, hastily drawn up amid the collapse of communism, is full of ambiguities, giving Zeman a free hand in appointing the next government. It’s a power that he hopes to exploit to mend his country’s strained ties with Russia and China.

A recent series of spats with Moscow and Beijing has disrupted the groundwork Zeman and his circle, dominated by businessmen with financial links to Russia and China, have spent years putting in place. Relations with Moscow hit a nadir in April when Babis announced that Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, was responsible for explosions at the Vrbetice munitions depot in 2014 that killed two people.

Following the announcement, the Czech government promptly expelled 18 of Russia’s personnel from its giant embassy in Prague, tossing out 60 more of them days later, after Moscow retaliated. He also barred the Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom from the tender to add a new reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. A bitter spat earlier in the year over a visit by Czech officials to Taiwan had seen China already excluded. 

These events only antagonized the Czech public’s already skeptical view of Russia and China. Zeman was likely left with little choice but to sign “Lex Dukovany,” as the law barring the two countries from the Czech nuclear sector is known. 

The president could have vetoed the bill, kicking it into the tall grass for the next government to deal with. Many were surprised he didn’t, including China’s Foreign Ministry, which was swift to state that it expects Prague to retract the law.

However, a veto would have provoked the electorate just ahead of the vote. Zeman likely decided to remain patient, secure his favored candidate another term in the prime minister’s office, and then apply pressure. 

“The new government will establish its own rules of the game, which could mean amending the law, canceling it or bypassing it,” suggests Pavel Havlicek, an expert on Czech-Russian relations at the Association for International Affairs in Prague.

Zeman’s expectation that he’ll be able to manipulate Babis does not come out of the blue. The president sealed a deal with the billionaire after ANO won the 2017 election with nearly 30 percent of the vote. Babis has ruled at the head of a minority coalition since then, but has largely resisted Zeman’s wishes regarding Russia and China, managing instead to keep the Czech Republic steady on a Western-oriented course.

However, the balance of power between them has changed. Babis has been weakened by the government’s erratic handling of the pandemic and the revived electoral challenge from the opposition. He is also increasingly desperate to remain in power due to various allegations of financial impropriety hanging over him, some of which were just recently revealed in the Pandora Papers leaks. 

“The president’s behavior has been, and maybe will be again, against the spirit of parliamentary democracy and a distortion of the Czech constitution.”

The Czech police have recommended Babis be indicted over alleged fraud involving EU subsidies. Brussels has ruled that he also has a conflict of interest concerning EU funds given to Agrofert, the agricultural conglomerate that he put into trust when he took office in 2017. Yet Babis is likely to struggle to win Parliament’s approval for any government he manages to piece together, meaning Zeman will have the power to replace him at any time. 

Zeman has spent the summer signaling to Babis that he will need to play ball after the election if he wants to remain prime minister. “Zeman holds most of the cards now,” says political analyst Jiri Pehe, director of the New York University in Prague.

Zeman is sometimes portrayed as a loose cannon, but he is in reality a skilled and cunning political operator. His announcement that Babis will be appointed after the election regardless of its outcome was clearly meant to deter opposition voters.

But the democratic bloc has been loudly calling its supporters to the polls. A combined majority for Spolu and Pirates and Mayors is needed, they insist, to prevent ANO from working with smaller populist and extremist parties. The far-right SPD party, formed in 2015, looks set to enter Parliament again with just over 10 percent approval, while the far-left KSCM, which supports Babis’ government in Parliament, is fighting to cross the 5 percent threshold.

“If a government majority emerges between ANO and the pro-Russian SPD and KSCM,” says analyst Jiri Leschtina, “echoes of the Vrbetice detonations can be drowned out by a barrage of disinformation and alternative facts, and nothing will stop Rosatom from returning to the game quietly.”

While a majority in Parliament for the democratic bloc would not solve the disputes over the Czech Republic’s geopolitical orientation, it would allow the mainstream parties to block legislative efforts to overtly move into Moscow and Beijing’s orbits—by repealing Lex Dukovany, for example—and give the opposition some leverage to try to block the president’s schemes.

“We know Zeman will appoint Babis whatever happens, but the game will be very different if the democratic bloc can secure any type of majority,” Pehe says. “A majority for the illiberal parties would give him a free hand.”

“If Zeman appoints Babis despite a majority for the democratic bloc then we will turn to the Senate to launch proceedings to have him declared unfit for office,” says Marketa Adamova, leader of Top 09, one of the three parties in Spolu. “We will also call people out to demonstrate.”

But Zeman is expected to push Babis to swiftly start working with the SPD and any other illiberal parties that make it to Parliament, to start mending ties with the East. The prime minister will be only too aware that his job, and perhaps his freedom, is in the president’s hands—at least until Zeman’s second and final term ends in March 2023.

“Zeman could ignore Parliament’s objections and keep Babis in government for 18 months,” says Sean Hanley, an associate professor in Central and Eastern European politics at University College London. “Babis will be uncomfortable with any sustained cooperation with the far right, but it’s preferable to losing power and possibly his parliamentary immunity.”

All of this means that while some—including the American, French and South Korean companies lining up to compete for nuclear contracts—hope that the president’s signature on Lex Dukovany has put the extended struggle over Czech energy security to bed, the reprieve may only be temporary.

Tim Gosling is a Prague-based journalist who has covered the Central European region for several years. He has contributed to Politico Europe, Deutsche Welle and the Financial Times, among other publications, and also provided analysis on the region for the Economist Intelligence Unit and IHS Markit.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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