Miloš Zeman: an "active" president and political player

Miloš Zeman with his wife Ivana, photo: CTK

Current Czech president Miloš Zeman could be described as ‘the comeback kid’ of Czech politics. Of course, Zeman, as the second oldest candidate of the nine contenders standing this time round, at 73, might well disagree with that description.

Miloš Zeman with his wife Ivana,  photo: CTK
But after he withdrew from top Czech politics for seven years in 2003, Zeman came back with a bang. He formed his own political party, very much his personal vehicle, which just failed to get into parliament. And in the first direct elections to be head of state in 2013, Zeman, the so-called Vysočina pensioner after his country home retreat, got to where he believed he belonged, Prague Castle.

But Zeman was not happy with the presidential job as he found it and believed that the job description should be reformulated on the strength of the over 2.7 million votes and near 55 percent backing he received from citizens in the second round of voting last time round. Zeman has frequently spoken of his admiration for former French president, Charles de Gaulle, a statesman who remodelled the French constitution to his liking and, with the majority parliamentary party often at his beck and call, was undoubtedly the main mover and shaker in the land of 246 different kinds of cheese.

Not being the leader of a government party, Zeman simply has not had that sort of power. But over the last five years Zeman has sought to stretch his constitutional powers to the limit, and some might say way beyond the limits. When you picture Zeman and the constitution, you can almost picture the incredible hulk bursting out of his clothes. Zeman has made no secret that he always envisaged himself as an ‘active president,’ and that did not in his vocabulary mean filling the ceremonial functions and cutting ribbons. He meant to be in the political thick of it. And to the politicians often elbowed aside, Zeman simply pointed to his direct mandate from the Czech people and asked how many votes they received.

Zeman has made no secret that he always envisaged himself as an ‘active president.’

The Czech president’s powers are clearest when a new government has to be formed. And faced with this scenario three times, Zeman has made the most of it. He first shoehorned in a caretaker government of his former industry minister Jiří Rusnok when the centre-right Civic Democrats claimed they had sufficient support in parliament to form a government to replace that of their former leader Petr Nečas. After the 2013 elections, Zeman kept Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka waiting three months before appointing him prime minister. Contrast that with the relatively rapid and smooth nomination of current prime minister Andrej Babiš although his party on its own falls well short of a parliamentary majority.

Zeman, also chose to interpret the constitutional his way, when last year prime minister Sobotka threatened the resignation of his government. Sobotka believed that his resignation meant the whole government fell. Zeman begged to differ with the resulting meeting between president and prime minister sparking a now famous scene where Zeman pointed his walking stick at Sobotka and a microphone urging him to make the announcement. Most constitutional experts said they believed Sobotka was in the right.

Miloš Zeman,  Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: archive of Czech Government
Zeman had some accounts to settle with Sobotka and other Social Democrat leaders from his failed attempt to become president in 2003. Then the electorate was just Senate and lower house lawmakers and the Social Democrats should have been able to push through their candidate if key supporters had not strayed. Zeman has the reputation of having a long memory and doesn’t like to leave unsettled accounts.

In the latest election campaign, Zeman has refused to rub shoulders with the other candidates or appear in television or other debates with them. He argues that his previous five year record speaks adequately for itself. In one recent interview, he maintained that, like any other profession, you needed to be a politician to be president. Zeman said former Civic Democrat prime minister and rival candidate, Mirek Topolánek, had the experience but had not done a good job in the past. And he gave another candidate, Pavel Fischer, half marks. Zeman added that he would describe himself as ‘president, former prime minister, leader of the Social Democrats, and otherwise as a former prognostic [member of an economic forecasting institution].’

One of his greatest achievements was to take the Social Democrats from a small marginalised party into an election winner capable of attracting a third of Czech popular support. As prime minister, Zeman headed one of a few Czech governments that actually saw out its full term by the middle of 2002 and pushed through a series of key privatisations.

He argues that his previous five year record speaks adequately for itself.

Zeman says with old age he is a lot calmer, quieter, and not so full of himself. Otherwise, he perhaps half joked, that he might be described as an arrogant boor. The president’s critics might point to some of his recent outbursts and argue the latter description still holds good. Zeman’s presidential turns of phases include using shockingly crude language in connection with the Russian group Pussy Riot, commenting to Russian president Vladimir Putin that journalists should be shot, and recommending a toast with the same fate for teetotallers and non-smokers.

In foreign affairs, one of the president’s areas of competence, he has enthusiastically pushed for the reset of Prague’s relations with China by ignoring human rights and other problematic issues. Zeman also controversially commented that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is now a fait accompli and that sanctions against Moscow simply haven’t worked. More generally, he justified his fairly close relations with leaders with dubious democratic credentials, arguing that as a president he can make a difference in meetings at such a level.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
He has been credited with foresight in being the sole European leader to back Donald Trump in the US election campaign when most others kept quiet or had written the Republican candidate off. Snubbed by former president Obama, Zeman had little to lose. And in spite of his backing, Zeman failed to see it translate into a visit to the White House though he said he had been invited.

Controversy has also surrounded many of Zeman’s Prague Castle team and the wide circle of outside advisors, often with business interests. At the end of five years and frequent promises, his head of office, Vratislav Mynář, still does not have the security clearance many believe is needed to do the job. His spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, has become infamous for his doublespeak and attacks on Zeman’s critics, so much so that a play dedicated to the spokesman was a local hit success. And, the president’s former head of protocol was forced to resign after reports of drug use and half naked encounters with men.

Zeman’s physical health is the big question mark in spite of his doctors’ protests that there are no worries.

But Miloš Zeman’s record and his team is probably not his weakest point. While still put in the polls as the front runner and the man to beat, Zeman’s physical health is the big question mark in spite of his doctors’ protests that there are no worries. He looked drawn and exhausted during a May trip to China and other official visits to Vietnam and Kazakhstan. His aides blamed the exhausting programmes and his ongoing problem with diabetes. Zeman’s infamous stumbling and glassy eyed appearance at a viewing of the Czech crown jewels in May 2013, blamed on an infection, still haunts him. With that in mind, he could just be one false step away from the presidency.