New Czech prime minister wins first clash with president

Petr Fiala, Miloš Zeman

President Miloš Zeman will appoint the new Czech government to office at Lány Chateau on Friday, despite his objections to the nominee for foreign minister. The development has been hailed as a significant victory for Prime Minister Petr Fiala, a university professor who has promised to change the political culture in the Czech Republic.

When President Miloš Zeman announced his refusal to appoint Pirate Party nominee Jan Lipavsky to the post of foreign minister last Friday, everyone expected weeks of protracted negotiations and a legal dispute over the president’s powers. The scenario that no one reckoned with is that the soft- spoken Civic Democrat leader and former university professor Petr Fiala would prove to be a match for the seasoned and wily politician at Prague Castle. Mr. Fiala surprised politicians and commentators alike when he came out of a private meeting with the president on Monday to announce that Mr. Zeman had accepted his cabinet line-up.

“ The new cabinet will be sworn in on Friday as proposed, that is including the nominee for foreign minister Jan Lipavsky. President Zeman made it clear that his objections to this nominee remain, but that he does not want to delay the appointment of a new government in view of the Covid pandemic, economic difficulties and the energy crisis. I very much appreciate his constructive attitude in reaching an agreement that will be the best for this country.”

Jan Lipavský | Photo:  Vít Šimánek,  ČTK

Prime Minister Fiala will thus start his term in office with the team that he wanted, moreover with the advantage of having proved his mettle even before rolling up his sleeves to tackle the many problems at hand. “The new prime minister is like a hobit –there’s more to him than meets the eye” one commentator wrote adding “let us hope that he did not sell his soul to Zeman”.

Just what exactly Petr Fiala did or said to win his first clash of wills with the head of state was the subject of debate on every media outlet on Monday night. What is known for a fact is that Petr Fiala stood by his word, refusing to make any changes to his cabinet line-up and telling the president he would take legal action against him if he failed to appoint the new government as proposed.

Some say that Zeman, who has thwarted proposed nominations to cabinet posts in the past, knew that he would lose a potential legal battle over his powers and was only testing the new prime minister’s mettle to see how far he could go. Others, who claim to know Zeman as a wily politician who always gets his pound of flesh, say that some kind of behind the scenes agreement must have been reached.

Prime Minister Fiala himself did not reveal any details or crow over his success, saying that the head of state had recognized that in view of the pandemic and growing economic problems, this was not the time for battle between the country’s leading institutions.

Whatever the president’s motives were, the outcome of this clash has established that, despite some of the president’s past excesses, the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy, that Petr Fiala is stronger than many assumed and that the five-party coalition will not fold at the first sign of trouble.