Tomáš Petříček recalled as foreign minister after failed party leadership bid

Tomáš Petříček, photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

Tomáš Petříček, the man who has been in charge of Czech diplomacy for over two years, will no longer be minister of foreign affairs, both Mr. Petříček and Social Democratic Party leader Jan Hamáček announced on Monday. He will likely be replaced by Culture Minister Lubomír Zaorálek. The announcement comes shortly after Mr. Petříček’s failed bid for the leadership of the Social Democrats.

It was on Sunday, two days after his failed leadership bid at the annual Social Democrat conference, that the Czech News Agency broke the story that Tomáš Petříček was likely to be recalled from the position of foreign minister.

At a press briefing on Monday, Mr. Petříček officially confirmed his dismissal from the post.

“I met with the Chairman of the Social Democrats Jan Hamáček on Sunday and he informed me that he would ask Prime Minister Babiš to recall me from my post. I did not hear any criticism of my work, but I respect that this is a political decision and I respect the decision of the party’s new leadership.”

Jan Hamáček,  photo: ČTK/Ondřej Deml

Tomáš Petříček has been in charge of the Czech Foreign Ministry since October 2018. He assumed the position through a compromise between the Social Democrats, who originally wanted Petříček’s former boss Miroslav Poche for the position, and President Miloš Zeman, who was strongly opposed to Mr. Poche being in charge of Czech foreign policy.

Mr. Petříček soon showed that he was committed to maintaining the country’s course in a pro-Western direction, sometimes despite opposition from Prague Castle, as he himself highlighted in his speech on Monday.

“It is no secret that I have been a thorn in the side of the Castle and Prezident Zeman. Most recently in the matter of the future of the Dukovany power plant, where I believe security comes first, or in that of vaccination, where I also believe that the security of our citizens comes first. I expect that in the near future we would also have had disagreements about the Ukraine, or other foreign policy themes.”

In a separate press briefing, party leader Jan Hamáček rejected speculation that he was dismissing the foreign minister under pressure from the president,  saying that the decision had been made solely by the party.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

“As far as the government is concerned, the Social Democrats have presented a united front. At our recent conference, two separate visions for our party were presented to the membership. One which is critical of our party being in government, the other which is less so. I met with the foreign minister yesterday and informed him that I would ask the prime minister to recall him from his position.”

Known as a member of the party’s liberal wing, Tomáš Petříček’s failed leadership bid showed that the main faction of the Social Democrats is more focused on building its voter base within the ranks of more conservative left-wing voters, a strategy represented by the re-elected Chairman Jan Hamáček. One anonymous Social Democrat source told news site Seznam Zprávy that the party had recently commissioned a series of internal polls, which showed that Mr. Petříček’s appeal lies among members of the public who do not plan to vote for the Social Democrats anyway.

In his statement, Mr. Hamáček also confirmed that he wants the current culture minister and former minister of foreign affairs Lubomír Zaorálek to replace Mr. Petříček.

“I have offered the position to Luboš Zaorálek. He already has experience as foreign minister and has shown through his past activity that nothing will fundamentally change in the direction of Czech foreign policy under his leadership.”

Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

A seasoned politician, Mr. Zaorálek also led the Social Democrats in the last elections into the Chamber of Deputies in 2017 and has a better relationship with President Zeman than the outgoing foreign minister. However, reports suggest that Mr. Zaorálek is not eager to leave his current post.

Mr. Hamáček, who is currently also deputy-premier and interior minister, has said that he has asked the prime minister to be put in charge of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs until the question of who will be the next foreign minister is clearly resolved. Regarding the question of who would replace Mr. Zaorálek as culture minister, Mr. Hamáček said he has chosen Social Democrat MP Jan Birke.