2021 in Czech Politics

Czech government, photo: Archive of the Office of the Czech Government
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2021 is an election year in the Czech Republic. Predictions about political developments in any country are difficult under normal circumstances, much less in the midst of a global pandemic. Nevertheless, Vít Pohanka asked Petr Just, a political scientist at the Metropolitan University in Prague, to take stock of where the Czech society and its political representation stands at the beginning of one of the more important years for the political direction of the country.

Let us start with how the present government has managed the COVID-19 situation so far. What do you think it has done right? What were its biggest weaknesses?

Petr Just,  photo: archive of Charles University

“As a political scientist, I would say that the government and its agencies have failed in communicating the various measures that had to be taken. We saw this weakness already during the first wave of COVID-19 infections in spring last year. Not much has changed and now when we were facing a much worse situation, this failure to communicate is even more serious.

We have also seen that the situation created a temptation for some government agencies and politicians to impose certain amendments to crisis legislation. This was intended as a means to increase the power of the prime minister and for example ministry of health. But it started to threaten the constitutional separation of powers in the Czech Republic, even the parliamentary control of the government which is a key element of parliamentary democracy. These attempts have failed so far due to criticism in the media and by experts. But they will probably continue and that is another serious concern that I have in this respect.”

The opposition party that seems to have profited most from the government’s mistakes are the Pirates. Could you introduce this political entity with a somewhat unorthodox name?

“It is a centrist liberal political party. It is based on the so-called “pirate movement” that started in the early 2000s in Sweden focusing on issues concerning freedom of information, freedom of the internet, transparency in public life. In the Czech Republic, they started also raising concerns about corruption and clientelism, especially among politicians. The Czech Pirates are not populists, they do not challenge liberal democracy as we can sometimes see in the case of some other protest political movements in western Europe.

Czech Pirate Party leader Ivan Bartoš,  photo: Luboš Vedral / Czech Radio

They have quite a large voter base, especially among younger people. But recently we have seen their position becoming stronger also among middle-aged voters. I think it is very strategic since this age group is much more disciplined when it comes to actual voting.”

Besides the Pirates, the Czech opposition consists also of the ODS (Civic Democratic Party), TOP 09, STAN, and Christian-Democratic parties. In your view, are they able to cooperate constructively?

“Three of the parties you mentioned (the Civic Democrats, TOP 09, and the Cristian Democrats) decided to join forces and run on a joint ticket in the upcoming elections. This is intended to offset the disadvantage that they have since the Czech electoral system hurts smaller parties. So, we can say that this is a constructive strategy from their point of view. They are trying to maximize their mandate and it shows that they want to challenge the position of the ANO party which is quite far apart and ahead of all the other political parties in opinion polls. The fourth opposition party of mayors and independents called STAN also decided to join forces with the Pirate Party we talked about earlier. So, you can see two broad opposition alliances forming against the government coalition. Right now, they seem to have roughly the same electoral potential as the government parties and it seems probable that there will have to be very tough post-election negotiations before the new government is formed.

The Czech President is elected by popular vote. The present head of state Miloš Zeman has been very pro-active – too pro-active, according to some. He often very openly criticizes the government, he has refused to appoint some cabinet ministers. But it is also no secret that he is ailing and aging. Do you see an active role for him in the election year of 2021?

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

“In general, the process of government formation in this country gives the President a very powerful tool: it is he who appoints the prime minister and he also appoints ministers at the prime minister’s recommendation. We have seen in the past that Miloš Zeman was not just active, but he used these tools to the utmost limit. I expect he will do so again after the elections. After all, there is a lot at stake for him and the people around him. For example, the new government will be selecting the company that will build a new reactor at one of the Czech nuclear power-plants in Dukovany. This is a politically highly sensitive decision. Miloš Zeman and his team have an interest in it. They are lobbying for a Russian company to get the contract. So, this will be their chance to select such a government that would keep the Russian and also Chinese companies in the game and that is why I believe President Zeman will be very active in the post-election government formation process.

All in all, the Czech government has managed to stay in power since 2017 and it has been more or less stable. Do you see any potential hurdles that might lead to a sudden crisis in the months before parliamentary elections?

“Every general election puts the stability of a coalition government at risk. Although they are partners in government, for now, they will eventually have to face each other in the election campaign. Each will try to defend its own position, each will try to blame the present partner for all the failures and each will try to take credit for the successes. Especially when the junior partner (Social Democratic Party) is not in great shape and they will have to somehow define themselves against the prime minister’s ANO party. In such a situation, we can definitely expect some coalition instability. I do not expect that the coalition will completely fall apart, but we can expect some conflicts and tensions within it. The same applies to the Communist Party, which is not an official member of the coalition but openly supports it. But again, I do not think that the government will fall apart.