Powers of the president likely to become hot election campaign issue

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

With the lower house set to vote on its dissolution next week and a general election likely to take place in October, Czech political parties are scrambling to finalize their candidates’ lists and making last-minute decisions on their election campaign priorities. In addition to the usual slogans, a new topic is expected to dominate the campaign: the role of the president in Czech politics.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Czechs appear to be heading for the polls, despite the fact that just over a month ago there was scant support in the lower house for early elections. The catalyst is not so much the graft and spying scandal that brought down the Nečas centre-right government but the country’s newly elected president, Miloš Zeman, who raised the hackles of parties left and right of centre by ignoring established customs and appointing a caretaker government of his own choice. His relentless grip on the reins of power has moreover played havoc with the country’s political landscape. While in the last election campaign political parties addressed the issue of direct presidential elections –now they are preparing to address the issue of curbing the powers of the president.

TOP 09 has emerged from the political crisis as the strongest force right-of-centre and has benefitted not just from the fall from grace of the centre-right Civic Democrats but also from the president’s political machinations. The party is now presenting itself as the only force on the Czech political scene which can stand up in defence of the country’s parliamentary democracy. It claims that the president has taken over the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, and wants to use it to increase his already considerable influence on the Czech political scene.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  Michal Hašek,  photo: CTK
The opposition Social Democrats, who have been heading election polls for months, will be hard put to deny these claims since last week’s confidence vote in the caretaker cabinet sidelined party leader Bohuslav Sobotka and bolstered the position of deputy chair Michal Hašek, a close ally of the president’s. Although the Social Democrats have stated their intention to draft a bill curbing the powers of the president, there is no saying what the election outcome may do to that promise.

The centre-right Civic Democrats, who are badly crippled by the corruption and spying scandal that brought down the centre-right government and whose lack of unity in last week’s confidence vote prevented the centre-right parties from demanding a second attempt at forming a government are desperately trying to recover lost ground. Several party members last week went so far as to ask their former leader ex-president Vaclav Klaus for help, which was curtly refused. The party is now poised to approve deputy chair Miroslava Němcova the Civic Democrat’s election leader. Although she too is likely to play the anti-Zeman card in combination with the party’s traditional values, the Civic Democrats are clearly no longer a heavyweight right-of-centre.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
And finally, there is the Communist Party, the only other parliamentary party –possibly with the exception of the Zemanites – that is likely to cross the five percent margin needed to win seats in the Chamber of Deputies. The Communists have taken a reserved stand to the president and are biding their time to see who their potential partners on the left may be. While the Social Democrats have consistently refused to cooperate with them on a national scale, it is not clear where the Social Democrats now stand and how much power the president’s allies wield within.

What is interesting to note is the fact that despite the scandals of the past few months over 70 percent of Czech voters say they will go to the polls. And although the election campaign has barely started many profess to know who they are going to support.