Czech president sparks protests with divisive address

Miloš Zeman, foto: ČTK

After his re-election as president some six weeks ago, Miloš Zeman suggested he would be less abrasive in office in his second term. But it didn’t take long for him to break his word. In the second half of his inaugural speech he took aim at everyone from an influential businessman to the media.

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK
It is an understatement to call the inauguration of the president, the start of a new five-year mandate, a moment of high importance and significant. It’s a ceremony held in the hall of kings Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle attended by some 700 guests and watched live by countless thousands. For this reason, many expected the president’s inaugural address to fly high above the political fray, but that was not the case.

The first part of the speech, in which Mr Zeman underlined successes in his first term, didn't upset anyone. It was the second half that raised the ire, at the very least, of the president’s political opponents, right-wing politicians from the Civic Democratic Party and TOP 09 as well the Christian Democrats and STAN. When the president unexpectedly suggested that journalists working for some Czech media outlets of businessman Zdeněk Bakala (in the Economia group) were not worthy of the public’s respect – and questioned the objectivity to public broadcaster Czech TV – it wasn’t long before some deputies started to walk out in protest.

The first was former Civic Democrat chairwoman Miroslava Němcová. Afterwards, she told Czech Radio why.

Miroslava Němcová, photo: CTK
“The president took the oath of office promising to uphold the Constitution and to remain above the fray. For him to, minutes later, break the promise by attacking the free press which is so important in a democracy, I thought the only way I could express my disagreement was by leaving. It’s not like I could ask for the mic.”

The head of STAN, Jan Farský, said he was saddened by the president’s speech, saying he had hoped it would be inclusive, that it would present a vision for the country moving forward, but that what he had heard instead was a settling of accounts. Jiří Dolejš, a deputy head of the Communist Party also expressed disappointment, although he gave the president points for part of his speech.

“There were positive moments such as when he spoke about meeting citizens or about economic diplomacy but I think that it was not the right occasion for settling past accounts with certain groups, even if they had merited it.”

One of those who has emerged as one the president’s most vocal supporters, the head of Freedom and Direct Democracy Tomio Okamura, suggested it was not the president who had caused a major scandal but those who had defied protocol by walking out.

Tomio Okamura, photo: Filip Jandourek
“This was supposed to have been a dignified ceremony to show that we were a democratic country where we are able to reach a consensus and represent our country in a fitting matter. But a number of Mr Kalousek’s MPs, as well as some Civic Democrats and others put themselves first.

“Unfortunately they embarrassed the Czech Republic internationally, which will have a negative impact on all ten million Czechs.”

The criticism has continued, including from the Václav Klaus Institute, founded by Mr Zeman’s predecessor who also served two terms in office.