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Czechia: Looking for a President

 Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavsky (L) receives his certificate of appointment from Czech President Milos Zeman (R) at the Lany Chateau, Czech Republic, 17 December 2021.
©EPA-EFE/Simanek Vít / POOL  |   Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavsky (L) receives his certificate of appointment from Czech President Milos Zeman (R) at the Lany Chateau, Czech Republic, 17 December 2021.

The transfer of power has ended in the Czech Republic. President Miloš Zeman appointed all members of the government of Petr Fiala and the government itself won the confidence of the Chamber of Deputies after almost 24 hours of speeches. While it might seem that the political scene may finally be calming down, it certainly won't be for long. In about a year's time, the presidential elections will take place and the names of the first candidates who would like to replace Miloš Zeman at Prague Castle are already beginning to emerge. The new head of republic will undoubtedly have an impact on the way the Czech Republic will act in its foreign policy.

The president does not have very strong powers in the Czech constitutional system, but his office traditionally enjoys great authority. He plays an important role in the formation of the government, appoints generals, judges or heads of some key institutions, and authorises ambassadors. According to the Constitution, he also "represents the state externally" and, while the government is responsible for foreign policy as such, the president participates in its formulation. 

Ultimately, how much the president can interfere in the foreign orientation of the state, depends largely on how strong the government is and how much it allows itself to be interfered with.

The incumbent President Zeman, especially in his first term after 2013, was able not only to influence Czech foreign policy, but actually accomplished a symbolic turnaround from the Havel-style approach of the 1990s – it means an orientation towards Western structures and the US and the human rights ethos – to a purely pragmatic policy that emphasised economic diplomacy in international relations. In Zeman's conception, this meant a turn towards Russia and China. At first, Zeman succeeded – also thanks to the then ruling Social Democratic Party, which was also close to China. This Zeman’s policy probably reached its peak in 2016, when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Czech Republic. He received a spectacular welcome, and the visit was accompanied by promises of huge Chinese investment. Almost none of this has happened, Beijing has been very assertive towards the Czech Republic, and currently relations with China are almost at a standstill. Relations with Russia, which Zeman also tried to push, have taken an even worse turn. Following the revelations of the GRU military intelligence attack on ammunition depots in Vrbětice, the two countries have expelled dozens of diplomats from each other's ranks and political relations de-facto doesn’t exist.

After his re-election in 2018, Miloš Zeman limited travelling and his activity in general. And after his hospitalization last year he announced that he would not fly on any more foreign trips while in office.

This partially clears the field for the new¨pro-western government that has seized power in recent weeks. But not entirely. Zeman first tried not to appoint foreign minister Jan Lipavsky, who was nominated to the government by the liberal Pirates. The president explained his opposition to the 36-year-old politician on the grounds that he allegedly does not support Israel enough and does not have enough education for the post (Lipavsky has a bachelor's university degree). He eventually backed down from this position, but he continues to express his reservations about the new foreign minister. Currently, he has declared that he does not intend to discuss foreign policy with him and wants to discuss the topic only with Prime Minister Petr Fiala. In the past, he has traditionally met with all top constitutional officials on foreign policy, including the foreign minister. 

Miloš Zeman has about a year left in his mandate and politicians are already thinking intensively about who should replace him in office. It will be extremely important for the government to have a president in Prague Castle who is sympathetic to it.

However, making sure that their candidates will be elected is not so easy for them. Since 2013, the president of the Czech Republic has been elected in a direct two-round election by all eligible voters, so it is necessary to find a personality that not only appeals to enough people, but also does not discourage them too much. This can also be a problem for otherwise strong political parties – presidential elections work differently from parliamentary ones. 

None of the major parties has officially announced its own candidate yet, but there are already some interesting names in the game that could set the tone for the campaign.

One likely candidate is Andrej Babiš, the former prime minister and leader of the ANO movement, which is now the largest opposition force and the strongest single party in the lower chamber of the Parliament. Although Babiš has not yet confirmed that he will run, he has not ruled it out. He has already bought a caravan and is preparing for a contact campaign. 

Another potential candidate who has not yet announced his participation in the elections is Miroslav Kalousek, the former chairman of two government parties – the Christian Democrats and TOP 09.

These two would be candidates are completely different politically, but what they have in common is that they are both divisive and polarising – they have die hard supporters but are unacceptable to a significant part of the electorate.

There is also talk of other names associated with party politics – the senator and former chair of the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS), Miroslava Němcová, and Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, also of the ODS. Neither of them has announced their candidacy yet. 

And then, Petr Pavel, the former Chief of the General Staff of Armed Forces of the Czech Republic and head of NATO's Military Committee, is considered a possible favourite. 

According to an internal poll conducted by the ruling coalition Spolu (Together), General Pavel has the best chance of winning. The data published in Czech daily Denik N shows that if ex-premier Babiš actually runs, at this point he would be the clear winner of the first round. In the second, however, only Pavel would beat him out of the candidates currently being discussed. So the ruling parties are faced with a dilemma – to send their candidate to the presidential election, or to support a civic candidate with a better chance of success? Moreover, Pavel has already announced that he does not intend to run with the support of any political party, but would possibly rely on a sufficient number of signatures of citizens.

It may be assumed that all these candidates – except Babiš – would have correct relations with the current government of Petr Fiala. All of these candidates are also pro-Western. Even former Prime Minister Babiš, who before last year's elections relied on virulent anti-immigration rhetoric and does not hesitate to criticise the European Union from populist positions, has never questioned the fact that the Czech Republic belongs to Western structures.

It thus seems that after the presidential elections, Czech foreign policy could become more predictable and pro-Western at all levels for some time. 

However, it should be stressed that we do not yet know all the candidates and not all of those speculated will actually run. Any guess as to the outcome is therefore very premature.

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  • With Miloš Zeman plagued by illness and only a year left of his term in office, the Czechs are already starting to look at a field of potential would be Presidents. Next year’s presidential elections may finalise a change that started with 2021 the parliamentary polls, and put Cechia ruling elite firmly back in the Western camp.
  • The incumbent President Zeman, especially in his first term after 2013, was able not only to influence Czech foreign policy, but actually accomplished a symbolic turnaround from the Havel-style approach of the 1990s – it means an orientation towards Western structures and the US and the human rights ethos – to a purely pragmatic policy that emphasised economic diplomacy in international relations. In Zeman's conception, this meant a turn towards Russia and China.
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