Expert: Zeman failed in bid to change Czech politics as president

Miloš Zeman

Wednesday will see Miloš Zeman step down after 10 years as Czech head of state. But where does Mr. Zeman stand among the major figures of post-1989 Czech politics? And what will his legacy as president be? I discussed those questions with Dr. Sean Hanley of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at University College London.

Sean Hanley | Photo:  archive of Sean Hanley

“I suppose we’d have to place him among the three big dominant figures, post-1989: Václav Havel, Václav Klaus, and then Miloš Zeman probably third – he was prime minister and then president.

“I suppose other than that his main story, although there are other elements to it, is really that he is the architect, and then the destroyer, of centre-left, social democratic politics in the Czech Republic, as we’ve so far known it."

As you say, he started out with the Social Democrats, then undermined the party greatly. How do you view the political path that he has taken over the years?

“I think he’s story actually begins before he joins the Social Democrats.

“He's quite a prominent but also quite an isolated figure in the Civic Forum movement in late 1989, 1990, when he’s really a sort of liberal, centrist, even free market figure.

“Only then does he move into social democracy and moves the Social Democratic Party from being a marginal one to being a very important political player.

“I suppose in many ways his long political career kind of tracks the development of Czech politics, from the politics of overthrowing communism, to the efforts to build Western-style parties in the ‘90s, to the unravelling of that and then to the much more strange and toxic and rather dark politics he’s associated with after his comeback and election as the country’s first directly elected president.”

Miloš Zeman | Photo: René Volfík,

If we could speak about his presidency, Mr. Zeman said at the weekend that with his appointment of the Rusnok caretaker government in 2013 he was attempting to push Czechia towards a presidential system. How much did he succeed in changing the Czech presidency?

“I think the short answer is he didn’t.

“I think he’s absolutely right that that caretaker, technocratic government that he appointed over the heads of political parties and really in defiance of the spirit, although not the letter, of the Constitution, was an attempt to really change the nature of Czech politics.

“It didn’t work. And it didn’t work really because the Constitution was too robust. Legal institutions, the courts, as Zeman knew, wouldn’t play his game.

“And he lacked a sufficient powerbase, despite his influence in the Social Democratic Party, to make political change.

“So in one sense he didn’t fundamentally change the political system

“I guess you could say that in a broader sense he redefined the role of the presidency as being a kind of populist tribune, and that was a role that Andrej Babiš was trying to step into and replicate in his own, unsuccessful presidential campaign.

“But on the whole I don’t think Zeman changed Czech politics in the ways that he clearly hoped to after taking office in 2013 as president.”

Miloš Zeman | Photo: René Volfík,

This week is the end of the 10 years of Mr. Zeman as president – what will his legacy be as head of state?

“In some ways I think, in the short term, not very much.

“He’s in poor health. He’s not a great intellectual – he’s erudite, but he’s not a great intellectual like Václav Havel, so there’ll be no Zeman Library in the way there’s a Havel Library.

“I don’t think he’s going to found an institute, a think tank-type body, like Václav Klaus.

“I suppose his legacy will be, as you’ve mentioned, this unsuccessful to remake Czech politics in more presidential and more populist terms.

“More broadly, I think if we look at his political career in the round, I think it’s an almost tragic story of Zeman as the creator of the Social Democratic Party and then as its destroyer.

“So if he had stayed out of politics, and not become president, when he retired as prime minister and Social Democrat leader, I think we would now be having a different conversation, and maybe for him a much more positive one.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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