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Surprises in the Czech Republic: Together with Pirates, without Populists and Communists

Cehia
©EPA-EFE/STRINGER  |   Petr Fiala, the leader of Civic Party (ODS) and Together's (SPOLU) coalition candidate for prime minister, gestures at a press conference at the SPOLU movement election event in Prague, Czech Republic, 09 October 2021.

The recent parliamentary elections have redrawn the political map in the Czech Republic. The incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has lost power, a coalition of five very diverse parties will most likely govern, and voters of the traditional left-wing parties have lost their representation entirely. The post-election situation is further complicated by the fact that President Miloš Zeman is seriously ill and, according to the hospital where he is hospitalised, is unable to exercise his powers. Prague Castle, however, is silent about Zeman's condition. 

Babis out, Together with Pirates in

Polls before the elections showed that Babiš's ruling ANO movement would defend its 2017 victory; the only question was whether it would have enough partners to govern in the new lower house. In the end, the results came as a surprise. The conservative centre-right coalition Spolu (Together, 27.8 %) finished first, beating the ANO movement (27.1 %) by a few tenths of a percentage point. This was followed by the second of the opposition coalitions, consisting of the Pirate Party and the Mayors and Independents movement (15.6%). The only other party that made it past the entry threshold was the populist anti-immigration SPD movement, with 9.6 % of the votes.

After decades, two traditional left-wing parties have lost their parliamentary representation - the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (3.6 %), which is directly related to the totalitarian Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and whose MPs made the current minority government possible. Then the Social Democratic party got only 4.7 %, which was a bit of a surprise considering that it played a key role in the post-revolutionary development of the Czech Republic. Since 1998, it has sat in six governments, in five of which have had a prime minister. 

The Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) has also been part of the government from 2017 until now, this time as a junior coalition partner of Babiš's ANO. However, this populist movement has taken a large part of the electorate from both traditional left-wing parties.

While ANO got a better electoral result, it effectively deprived itself of the opportunity to govern because of the fall of its two existing partners. A significant majority of 108 out of 200 MPs is held by two previously opposition coalitions that have strictly rejected cooperation with ANO and expressed their determination to govern together. 

Although the five parties that make the coalitions are showing a willingness to agree on the programme and the staffing of ministries and are so far acting in complete agreement, they have no easy task ahead of them. They have to bring together subjects that otherwise have very little in common - for example, the very liberal Pirates and the conservative Christian Democrats. This makes it clear that finding a consensus on, for example, the much-discussed topic of legalising marriage for same-sex couples will be almost impossible. While some of the parties are strongly pro-European, skeptical voices are sometimes heard from the right-wing conservative ODS, for example. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that the new government will have a strongly pro-Western anchorage and will rely more on the classical mechanisms of parliamentary democracy than Babiš has done so far with his populist-managerial style of governing.

The prime ministerial candidate is ODS chairman Petr Fiala, who impressed with his convincing performance in the pre-election debates. The professor of political sciences, former rector of Masaryk University in Brno and former Minister of Education managed to convince voters that the Spolu coalition has the best chance of succeeding against Prime Minister Babiš. 

The Pirates went through a fiasko in the elections, although they will probably become part of the government in the end. The coalition of the Pirates and the Mayors and Independents was still predicted to win in the spring, but finally the two parties together got just over 15 percent. The bigger problem it is for the Pirates, who will be left with only four MPs of the current 22. The reason for this failure  is that the Pirates were abandoned by voters during the summer and autumn. Another reason is that the people who voted for the coalition gave their preferential votes primarily to the Mayors and their candidates thus outnumbered the Pirate candidates.

The question remains whether President Milos Zeman will play any role in the formation of the new government. He has been Andrej Babiš's closest political ally in recent years and made it clear before the election that he would appoint him as prime minister, basically regardless of the result. Babiš has almost no chance to put together the government majority; a new appointment would give him the opportunity to govern for months to come without the support of parliament. Anyway, Babiš has already signalled that he is ready to go into opposition.

The ailing president

For a long time, it was not clear whether president would be able to participate in the post-election steps. He has been seriously ill for several weeks and Prague Castle has not provided any information about his health. 

We can only get a partial idea of this condition thanks to the media: the President has liver problems, which are linked to other complications, and in mid-September the President was hospitalised for eight days for so-called ascites, i.e. fluid in the abdominal cavity. At the time, Prague Castle claimed that doctors had found "no illness or any other problems that would endanger the life of the President of the Republic". Zeman was said to be suffering from dehydration and mild exhaustion.

The President has not made any public appearances since his release from hospital and on Sunday, 10 October, he was hospitalized again immediately after his meeting with Prime Minister Babiš. As can be seen from the footage taken by some media, he was in an unconscious state. 

The Deník N daily pointed out that the president is suffering from another complication, hepatic encephalopathy, which affects his cognitive abilities - he is disoriented, says unrelated things. The president's office has since admitted only that Zeman is "ill". The spokesman has posted psalms on social media, attacks on journalists or politicians, or calls to people to pray for Zeman. No concrete information. He also claims that "hospitalization does not prevent the president from exercising his constitutional powers."

This version was to be confirmed last week by the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Radek Vondráček (ANO), who unexpectedly visited Zeman for a few minutes and took away the decision that the president was calling a meeting of the newly elected Chamber of Deputies for 8 November. This is the date when the deputies would have met automatically even without the president's blessing. The circumstances of the visit, however, did not quell the doubts, on the contrary. 

The police are already looking into whether the president's signature, which is different from his previous known signatures, is not falsified. Moreover, the hospital where Zeman is being treated has issued a very sharp statement calling Vondráček's visit "unjustified". As it turned out, the doctor also banned the president's associates from his room. By agreement with the hospital, since the end of last week the police, who oversee the president's security, will not allow anyone to see him without doctors' permission.

However, Monday's developments showed that Zeman is unlikely to intervene in the post-election situation. The Central Military Hospital, where the president is being treated, told the Senate in response to its questions that Zeman is currently "unable to perform any work duties." The long-term prognosis is then "extremely uncertain".

According to the Czech Constitution, Zeman is not needed to act now. This will change after 8 November, when the new House of Commons meets for the first time. At that time, the current government is to resign and the president is to delegate powers to it until he appoints a new government. 

If Zeman is still unable to exercise the powers, the Parliament should decide whether other constitutional officials, notably the prime minister and the speaker of the House, should temporarily take over the president's powers while he is unable to exercise the office. Interestingly, Prime Minister Babiš, who is being prosecuted in his subsidy case, would gain the power to grant pardons and quash criminal prosecutions, among other things. 

The new prime minister would then be appointed by the speaker of the newly elected Chamber of Deputies.

The Constitution says that the President would have to be stripped of his powers by a decision of both houses of Parliament. According to recent statements by politicians, this procedure is likely and has a high chance of being approved.

If such a decision is made, opposition from people in the president's entourage, especially Chancellor Vratislav Mynář, who is also facing criminal prosecution, can be expected. He has already attacked the Senate on Monday during one of his very rare appearances before journalists. "I have never seen so much hypocrisy displayed by the President of the Senate and some other members in my life. From the very beginning, everything has been aimed at trying to deprive the President of his powers," Mynář said. Again, he did not mention the President's state.

Even though the election result is clear at first glance and the new coalition is coming together very smoothly, the formation of the new government could be finally even more protracted – because of the unclear situation surrounding the president. The new government will face a number of major challenges - the country continues to struggle with covid-19, the state budgets are running huge deficits and the Czech Republic will hold the Presidency of the EU Council in the second half of next year.


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  • The recent parliamentary elections have redrawn the political map in the Czech Republic. The incumbent Prime Minister Andrej Babiš has lost power, a coalition of five very diverse parties will most likely govern, and voters of the traditional left-wing parties have lost their representation entirely. The post-election situation is further complicated by the fact that President Miloš Zeman is seriously ill and, according to the hospital where he is hospitalised, is unable to exercise his powers. Prague Castle, however, is silent about Zeman's condition.
  • After decades, two traditional left-wing parties have lost their parliamentary representation - the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (3.6 %), which is directly related to the totalitarian Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and whose MPs made the current minority government possible. Then the Social Democratic party got only 4.7 %, which was a bit of a surprise considering that it played a key role in the post-revolutionary development of the Czech Republic. Since 1998, it has sat in six governments, in five of which have had a prime minister.
  • Although the five parties that make the coalitions are showing a willingness to agree on the programme and the staffing of ministries and are so far acting in complete agreement, they have no easy task ahead of them. They have to bring together subjects that otherwise have very little in common - for example, the very liberal Pirates and the conservative Christian Democrats. This makes it clear that finding a consensus on, for example, the much-discussed topic of legalising marriage for same-sex couples will be almost impossible. While some of the parties are strongly pro-European, skeptical voices are sometimes heard from the right-wing conservative ODS, for example.
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