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Czech Politics: An Unfinished Play in Four Acts

The national legislative elections and upcoming presidential election in the Czech Republic could be the most consequential events since Czech independence in 1993. The elections to the House of the Czech Parliament occurred this past October, and the presidential election looms in January. Though Czech politics does not frequently make headlines in anglophone media, the current moment is one that should. The themes of political reconfiguration and of the tension between popular and elite sentiment—issues that have taken center stage in the United States and western Europe—have become visible in the Czech Republic as well. The current moment between the two Czech elections thus provides an important window into the state of public affairs in central Europe. With the addition of some very colorful characters, it offers an entertaining comedy of manners, too.

The Scene

The Czech constitutional system is a European parliamentary (Westminster) system with a strong dose of inspiration from American constitutionalism.

Legislative powers are vested in the Parliament, which consists of two chambers: the House and the Senate. The House is elected for four years, but can be dissolved before the completion of its term. According to our Constitution, the House is to be elected by a proportional representation, and the Czech Republic has a 5 percent threshold for entering the House. Thus every political party receiving at least 5 percent of all cast ballots enters the House, which in turn contains two hundred members.

The Senate is in some ways similar to the U.S. Senate: a senator’s term is six years, and one-third of senators are up for reelection every two years. Senate elections are in November of every even-numbered year. In contrast to the United States, we have a two-round majority system for Senate elections: if no candidate receives more than 50 percent in the first round, the top two candidates face a runoff in the second round. The Czech Senate consists of eighty-one senators.

Executive powers are divided between a cabinet of ministers headed by the prime minister and the president. The cabinet of ministers, along with the prime minister, has to receive a vote of confidence from the House (Westminster system); if they receive a vote of no confidence, they have to resign. So, the prime minister and other ministers must, like the British prime minister, always have a majority of support in the House. The cabinet of ministers holds most executive powers, but not all.

Some executive powers belong to the president. He is the commander in chief; he appoints ambassadors (with an agreement by the cabinet of ministers); he appoints members of the board of the Czech National Bank (the central bank); and he nominates judges to the Constitutional Court (the supreme court in the Czech Republic), who are confirmed by the Senate. The president is elected for a five-year term and can be reelected for another term, but no more than two in total. In the past, Czech (and Czechoslovak) presidents used to be elected by the Parliament. But since our Constitution was amended six years ago, our presidents are elected by the people in a two-round majority system, as for example in France.

The budget is approved only by the House; the justices of the Constitutional Court are confirmed only by the Senate.

Act One: A Tale of Two Václavs

Václav Havel was the last Czechoslovak president (1989–1992) and the first Czech president (1993–2003). The second Czech president was Václav Klaus (2003–13). Both were elected by the Czech parliament, both twice. The third president of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, was elected by a direct popular vote in 2013. He is up for reelection in January 2018.

All three of them have been strong personalities. Václav Havel (who passed away in 2011) was a famous dissident, an unofficial leader of the Czechoslovak anti-Communist opposition, an intellectual, a playwright. Publicly and personally a shy man, he became a sort of Platonic “philosopher-king” once he had been elected president.

He loved western Europe, and he loved America even more. He had very good relations with all U.S. presidents during his terms, both Democratic and Republican: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Havel also warned President Obama in 2009 that he should not allow his supporters to have extreme expectations of him (like “He is the one we have been waiting for!”), because they would inevitably find themselves disappointed.

Concerning his political opinions, Havel was half Ronald Reagan and half Jane Fonda. He was a Ronald Reagan on foreign policy and a Jane Fonda on cultural and moral issues. He had been anti-Communist and anti-totalitarian. He supported the United States in all of its wars, partly from gratitude to America for defeating Communism and the Soviet Union, partly because he was really convinced that democracies should not appease dictators—a very Czech attitude, going back to the Munich Agreement. So he gave support to the Kosovo campaign (in 1999) and to both wars in the Gulf (1991 and 2003). The reasons for his support were somewhere in between neoconservative arguments and liberal humanitarian interventionism.

On the other hand, he was left-liberal on cultural and moral issues. He loved Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones and Milos Forman. He was a womanizer. He was a pal of Bill Clinton. He was deeply into New Age spirituality and a personal friend of Dalai Lama. He had an appreciation for spirituality, but any and all spirituality.

He began as a conservative conservationist, similar in his positions to Roger Scruton—critical of the utilitarian, egoistic exploitation of nature and the environment. Later, mostly in his last years as an ex-president, his environmentalism became more global in character, with dreams of a world government to solve the problems of mankind.

Václav Klaus, meanwhile, was the complete opposite of Václav Havel. He started as a utilitarian classical liberal and evolved into a nationalist paleoconservative. He was originally very close to Margaret Thatcher and the Cato Institute, mostly occupying himself with economic issues. One of his favorite sayings was: “In the order of importance, money is only in the first place.” Even though his rhetoric—especially when speaking in Great Britain and the United States—was pure libertarianism, his policies as a prime minister in the 1990s were quite statist and even socialist. On foreign policy, he tended towards an isolationist position, always against the use of Western military force abroad. He has always had a strange appreciation of and sympathy for dictators, whether Slobodan Milosevic or Vladimir Putin. He has been critical of global warming theories.

Klaus also distinguished himself as a vigorous critic of the European Union (EU) and European integration. Always critical, now he is outright hostile. His position as a Czech ex-president is to support “Czexit”: the Czech Republic should leave the EU. In the process of becoming more and more critical of the EU, he has become more and more nationalistic, and hence is often shunned and ostracized by the western European establishment. At the same time, he consequently became more popular in the eastern Europe, particularly in Russia. He is openly pro-Russian today and advocates for the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine. That was too much for the Cato Institute, which subsequently dropped him from the position of “distinguished senior fellow”; it is one thing to be against Western military interventionism abroad, and it is a completely different thing to be an advocate for a Russian imperialist and authoritarian regime.

Act Two: The Problem of Miloš Zeman

Miloš Zeman is a larger-than-life figure as well. He was the founder of the modern Czech Social Democracy party. He succeeded in making it, at the turn of the century, the strongest Czech political party, and he served as the prime minister from 1998 to 2002. He ran for president in 2003, but Václav Klaus was elected president by the parliament in that year. Zeman then retired for ten years from politics but ran again for president in 2013—and succeeded in being elected by the direct vote of the people.

Zeman is a typical protagonist of the Old Left: pro-workers, pro-unions, Keynesian socialist in economics, slightly populist, but strongly anti–New Left. He hates feminism and feminists, multiculturalism and multiculturalists, and he is strongly anti-Islam. He is not only against Islamism or radical Islam, but against Islam per se. He has called Islam an “anti-civilization” (which is ridiculous, of course—Islam is a civilization, even though we may not like all of its values). Not surprisingly, he has been strongly against admitting any Muslim immigrants, refugees or otherwise.

As a prime minister in 1999, he opposed the NATO bombing of Serbia on behalf of Kosovo Albanians, because most of them were Muslims. However, after 9/11, he described himself as an “ultra-hawk”—and indeed he was one—in what was called the “War on Terror.” He had to publicly censure his peacenik minister of foreign affairs who, as a more pacifist leftist, was against the invasion of Iraq in 2003—an invasion strongly supported by Zeman.

Being hostile to Islam, Zeman has been passionately pro-Israel. In fact, all Czech presidents and prime ministers have been pro-Israel, and in fact the Czech Republic is the most pro-Israel country in Europe. It is so partially for historic reasons, partially for political ones. Zeman explicitly called Yasser Arafat a terrorist and compared him to Hitler some fifteen years ago, which caused him to become very popular both in Israel and among some international Jewish organizations.

This was the Miloš Zeman of fifteen years ago, and on these issues he has not changed. But since becoming president, other aspects of his personality have emerged or grown more prominent, peccadilloes that have embarrassed his administration.

Zeman is a heavy smoker, in fact a chain-smoker. He smokes everywhere, even in places (offices, TV stations) where smoking is prohibited, and he is proud of breaking that law. Now it may be that the law is stupid and should be changed, but it is a law, and it is not a fitting example for the president to openly break the law.

Worse, Zeman has joked about rape as a manly endeavor. During the last presidential elections, when he faced his opponent Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round, he used a rape joke for his advantage. Karel Schwarzenberg was then minister of foreign affairs, and, of course, a scion of an old and famous central European aristocratic family. Schwarzenberg’s full noble title (which the Czech and Austrian republics do not officially recognize) is Karl VII Prince von Schwarzenberg. So, he is a prince. The name “zeman,” by contrast, in Czech denotes the lowest title of nobility, a not-so-rich owner of some land.

So, Miloš Zeman saw fit to joke in a TV debate with Karel Schwarzenberg, “We zemans are manlier than you princes. Why? It was easy for princes to have sex with peasant women and girls. We zemans had to rape them. So, we zemans are now manlier and more vigorous than you degenerate princes.”

Of course, morally speaking, Zeman deserved to be whipped for those remarks. And Western feminists would rightly have had him crucified, had he said that in western Europe or in the United States.

In addition to his heavy smoking and jokes about rape, Zeman is a heavy drinker—a drunkard, in fact. He has been visibly drunk many times, intoxicated and incapacitated while in public as the president. It has been a nuisance and a shameful disgrace. When he was in that condition for the first time as the president in 2013, his spokesman claimed he suffered from virosis. Hence the word “virosis” is a Czech inside joke for our president being drunk now.

Did his heavy smoking, heavy drinking, and rape jokes diminish his electoral chances? Not at all. On the contrary, he ran his campaign as a country populist against the Prague-based, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, liberal, wealthy elites. He ran as a “man of the people,” a normal guy against those elites and elitists. And he has succeeded. In the eyes of his supporters and voters, his smoking, drinking, the utmost political incorrectness, together with heavy eating (claimed his favorite dish was pork head cheese with vinegar and onions; with slivovitz before and after, of course), made him “normal” and regular. In January 2013, he defeated Karel Schwarzenberg 55 to 45, with a turnout of 60 percent.

Before the elections, Zeman claimed that his most important foreign policy position, in addition to support for Israel and hostility to Islam, was support for a federal United States of Europe. Since being elected, however, he has been silent on that point. Instead two other issues emerged as the most conspicuous foreign policy positions of President Zeman: support for Communist China and support for Putin’s Russia.

Zeman visited China and invited Chinese president Xi Jinping to Prague. He has claimed that Chinese investment in the Czech Republic would create jobs. So far, that has not materialized, and investments from South Korea and Taiwan are much higher than those from China. Zeman’s pro-Chinese activities are probably in the interest of two wealthy Czech financial groups, which would like to invest in China. Zeman used their private jet to fly back to Prague from China instead of his presidential jet (probably there was better food and liquor on that private jet). It was another Zeman disgrace: a president on a flight from an official presidential visit to another country, using not his presidential airplane but a private jet rented by two business companies.

Concerning Russia, President Zeman is probably the only European president or prime minister who has opposed sanctions on Russia after Russian annexation of Crimea (an annexation he has recommended should be acknowledged and accepted) and aggression against Ukraine. On this issue, unlike the Chinese one, he is out of step with the Czech prime minister and the cabinet of ministers, who are responsible for the Czech foreign policy. The incumbent Czech prime minister and minister of foreign affairs are both Social Democrats, and they, like Zeman, are keen on receiving Chinese money. But unlike Zeman and like all European statesmen in positions of power, they are critical of Russian aggression, occupation, and territorial annexation. Zeman’s position is odd especially in the light of Czech history: in 1938, parts of then Czechoslovakia had been dismembered and annexed by a larger hostile neighboring superpower, namely Nazi Germany.

What’s the reason for Zeman’s pro-Russian and pro-Putin positions? The Russians, in the form of a state-owned gas company Lukoil, likely contributed mightily to Zeman’s presidential campaign in 2013 and are probably doing so again in 2017/18. In any event, the director of Lukoil in the Czech Republic is an influential adviser to Zeman, so Zeman and his campaign have probably been covertly financed by the Russian state.

Act Three: The Fall of Petr Nečas

Concerning the elections to the House of the Parliament, and consequent Cabinets of Ministers chaired by prime ministers, there has been a perfect symmetry between the center-right and center-left in the Czech Republic, so far.

After the fall of Communism in November 1989, we had had the first free and democratic elections in 1990, won by a broad coalition of all-democratic, anti-Communist forces. Since those elections, we had center-right prime ministers and governments for eight years (1990–98), followed by center-left prime ministers and governments for another eight years (1998–2006), followed by center-right prime ministers and governments for seven years (2006–13). The last center-right prime minister, Petr Nečas, resigned in 2013 under tragicomic conditions, which imitated an ancient Greek drama.

Nečas was a good man—an intelligent, hard-working, uncorrupt person. A politician since 1992, he became prime minister in 2010 at 45 years old. He was a moderate conservative—as much a conservative as one can be in the egalitarian and secular Czech society and still become a prime minister. This means he was an economic conservative (moderate classical liberal anti-socialist) and personally a cultural conservative, too (a Catholic from the Catholic region of Moravia, married with four children). His reputation was one of “Mr. Honest” and “Mr. Integrity.” He was one of few Czech pro-family politicians, publicly accepting family values.

All seemed to be good and well. He has had one, and perhaps only one weakness, however—a blind spot. He got a mistress and appointed her his chief of staff. That was a big mistake. That woman was power-hungry and luxury-obsessed, and arrogant, too. By common opinion she has been rather less pleasant than Nečas’s wife. But Nečas had fallen deeply in love with her.

In early 2013, Nečas separated from his wife and later divorced her. In June 2013, his chief of staff (that is, his mistress) was arrested and her office (in the Office of Prime Minister) searched by police. She was accused of misusing Czech military intelligence to spy on the prime minister’s wife in the fall of 2012. Nečas had to resign in ignominy. He had been denying they were lovers till her arrest, even though many people suspected it for years. Later, they got married. Her trial is still not over.

So, a good man Nečas had one blind spot—a woman—which caused the ruin of both his political career, his government, and his family. Whom gods want to destroy, they blind first.

Act Three, Continued: Enter Andrej Babiš

Many voters on the center-right became disappointed, and the Social Democratic Party salivated about the prospects of an electoral victory in new parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2013.

An unexpected development happened, however. A multibillionaire of Slovak origin, Andrej Babiš, swiftly jumped into politics and created a political movement called ANO (meaning “Yes”) during summer 2013, attracting most of the unsatisfied voters of the center-right and some of the center-left, too. His movement has been a centrist one, broadly defined, and populist.

Babiš had been a member of the Communist Party during Communism, but as a nonideological apparatchik. His father had been a Communist official working abroad, and young Andrej attended a boarding school in Switzerland. As a young adult, he worked for a Czechoslovak state-owned company in Morocco in the 1980s. He has been registered in files of the State Security agents (a Communist secret police, the Czechoslovak equivalent of the Soviet KGB). He denies having ever been an agent, and now the case is in the court of law in Slovakia. Most experts think he had to be either an agent or at least a collaborator of the Communist secret service because, during Communism, all Czechoslovak citizens allowed to study or to work in the capitalist West simply had to. That was the norm. Had they refused to collaborate, they would not have been allowed to travel to or to live in the West.

He became a businessman after the fall of Communism and started businesses in agriculture and chemical industries with money from unknown sources. And he has become very, very rich—the second richest Czech businessman. His agricultural and chemical businesses are located in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the eastern regions of Germany.

In fall 2013, he ran a very effective and efficient campaign based on the notion that all politicians were corrupt, stupid, and lazy; that he was not a politician but a successful businessman; that he was wealthy enough and did not need to steal or to take bribes, unlike other politicians; that Czech people were good and skillful, but were misgoverned by stupid, lazy, corrupt politicians; that he would work hard for the country and the people; and hence that the future would be bright.

In sum, he displayed many features, attitudes, and positions similar to those of Donald Trump in 2016.

Babiš was successful in the 2013 elections. His completely new party emerged as the second largest, running a very small margin behind the victorious Social Democrats. Hence a center-left coalition government was established with a socialist prime minister, and Babiš as his first deputy prime minister and minister of finance.

After that, the main political contest emerged not between the center-left coalition government on the one side and the (center-) right opposition on the other, as it usually does in parliamentary democracies, but inside the coalition government itself. The center-right opposition was too weak, so the main political opponents became the ruling Social Democrats and Babiš’s ANO party.

The Social Democratic prime minister, Sobotka, has all the charisma of a bank account manager. Meanwhile, Babiš has not grown weary of repeating that he is not a politician, just a citizen-statesman trying to improve the economy damaged by corrupt politicians. And this message convinced enough voters to elect him prime minister in the elections of October 2017.

Indeed, Babiš won despite being under police investigation for misusing EU funds and subsidies for his private business. He might be the first Czech prime minister ever who, as a serving prime minister, will be indicted and have to stand a trial. If convicted, he will then serve a prison term.

His voters did not care about those accusations, or his likely collaboration with Communist secret police in the past, however. He won a plurality, 30 percent of all votes (a 50 percent increase since 2013). Eight smaller parties have been left far behind him; the second strongest party (the main center-right one), got just 11 percent. And the Social Democrats lost two-thirds of their votes since 2013, receiving just 7 percent of the popular vote.

Who else entered the House in 2017, passing the 5 percent threshold? The Pirates polled almost 11 percent—a party for young liberal-libertarian metropolitan professionals, enthusiasts for IT, computers, the internet, and the free downloading of movies and music, opposed to copyrights and intellectual ownership of anything on the internet.

Another entrant has been Mr. Tomio Okamura’s party, which advocates for replacing our deliberative parliamentary democracy with a government by referenda. Okamura’s main agenda, in addition to “direct democracy,” has been zero tolerance for and hostility toward any and all Muslim immigration and immigrants. The party has not been anti-immigration only (which could be a reasonable position), but is often nasty and xenophobic. Its success has been due to western European politicians’ intention to impose compulsory quotas of Muslim immigrants on central Europe. (In fact these quotas have been very unpopular not only with central European citizens but Muslim immigrants, too: they do not want to migrate to Central Europe, a region with strange languages they neither speak nor understand, and with no Muslim communities or generous welfare state, but rather to Germany and Sweden, countries with very generous welfare states that already contain considerable Muslim communities.) Postcommunist Central Europe is still a poorer part of the EU, but it has two natural advantages which western Europe lacks: due to more recent experience with totalitarianism, it likes to think itself politically more realistic and less naive than “spoiled” left-liberal western Europeans, and it has at most small Muslim minorities. Concerning the latter, most people in Central Europe wish it to remain so.

In any event, it is very Czech (Kafkaesque, indeed) that the main Czech nativist politician, Mr. Okamura, is a man with a beautiful Japanese but non-Slavic name, the son of a Czech mother and a Japanese father.

Act Four: A Tale of Unrequited Loves

In any event, Mr. Babiš has won the October 2017 parliamentary elections and is now our prime minister. An unexpected obstacle has occurred, however.

In order to receive a vote of confidence in the House, he needs support from a majority of MPs. Yet he only received 30 percent of the vote and has seventy-eight MPs (out of two hundred), so he needs another party to join his government in coalition. Both Mr. Okamura and the Communists would love to join him, but he does not want them; they are too odious even for him. And they would tarnish his “European” credentials. Particularly in light of his past and his being investigated for fraud, he is keen to reassure any and all that he is a good, responsible “European” (meaning pro-EU), not an extremist populist.

So, he would like to form a coalition with “respectable” parties (those other than Okamura and Communists), be they parties of the center-right, the center-left, or the Pirates. But he has a problem: they do not want to join his government.

Two kinds of unrequited love have appeared. Those parties which love Babiš are not loved by him, and those which he would like to love do not love him. They are afraid of his power; they fear that a coalition with him would destroy their electoral prospects; and they hope that being in opposition now will help them win the next elections (in 2021).

The most likely scenario is that Babiš will form a minority government, which will not receive a vote of confidence. He will have to resign, and then get a second opportunity to form another government. And some of those parties, which refuse to join him now, will change their mind and join him then—because the spoils of power are so pleasant, after all.

That will happen only after our next presidential elections, however. Everybody will wait to see who will be elected president. After that, they will make their political calculations and take their chances.

January 2018: The Act to Come

The next presidential elections are scheduled for January 2018—the first round in mid-January, the second round in late January, and the inauguration on March 8.

So far, President Zeman and Prime-Minister-to-be Babiš have cut a deal: Zeman will appoint Babiš as the prime minister and Babiš’s party ANO will not run its own candidate for president. This strategy should enable Zeman’s reelection. And Zeman was considered in any event to be the front-runner till late summer: he is an incumbent, a good debater, and strongly opposed to Muslim immigration, a popular position.

His health has deteriorated rapidly and considerably since the summer, however. He cannot walk alone anymore—he must be supported by other persons, can stand only with a cane, and usually uses a wheelchair. He appears frail and sick. He has lost weight and seems to be under medication. And he refuses to release his medical health reports. Some observers predict he is terminally ill and left with only months, not years, of life.

Many of his supporters have appreciated his vigor, manliness, machismo, and an aura of a strong personality. How will they respond to his frailness, and to an aura of sickness? No one knows, but the consensus is that he is beatable now.

Who are his opponents? Nine persons are running for president, but only two have a real chance to be elected, in addition to Zeman.

One of them is Professor Jiří Drahoš, former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He is tall, grey-haired, dignified, sober, intelligent, and gentlemanly—he looks “presidential.” As for his disadvantages? He is reluctant to express any political views. Many people doubt he has any, and suspect he is soft, wobbly, and indecisive, that he will blindly follow the center-left European mainstream, and that he will be under the spell of his advisers. In short, a good but a weak man.

The other one is former center-right prime minister (in 2006–9) Mirek Topolánek. He has been pro-business, pro-American, mildly Euroskeptic, energetic, decisive, efficient, choleric. A good debater, doer, and achiever. He displays a milder version of Zeman’s temperament, more polite than Zeman but willing to cuss, swear, vituperate, and use profanities like Zeman. A younger version of Zeman in personality, but not in policies; Topolánek, unlike Zeman, is pro-Western, likes America, and is strongly anti-Communist. When prime minister, he privately visited the Chinese Olympic games in Beijing in 2008 wearing a small Tibetan flag as his lapel pin. The Chinese authorities were not impressed, to say the least. That’s Topolánek.

But Topolánek’s “skeletons in the closet” are legion: his government was one of the most corrupt in modern Czech history. He himself probably was not too corrupt, but many members of his party and his cabinet ministers definitely were. His closest then-adviser and lobbyist is currently serving time in prison for corruption. Moreover, he was a friend of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and took part in at least one of Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga” parties in Italy. How do we know? Paparazzi produced pictures of a naked Topolánek in the villa’s garden at the pool.

Concerning the latter skeleton, most Czech voters would not object; concerning the former, they might. So his electoral prospects are an open question.

Anyway, it is likely that in the second round of the Czech presidential elections, Zeman will face either Drahoš or Topolánek—that is, if Zeman is healthy enough and still alive in January.

These are funny and interesting times for the Czech Republic—not necessarily pleasant ones, however. A ruthless Babiš as the prime minister; and as the next president, who?

Will he be an ill, probably dying, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese drunkard Zeman? Or will he be a good, but inexperienced and politically naïve Drahoš, slavishly following the European liberal mainstream? Or might he be a virile, energetic, center-right, pro-American, EU-critical, macho Topolánek—with a history of corruption?

We shall see. But we in the country of Kafka will be content. The beer is still great, after all. No need to make the Czech beer great again. It is, always has been, and is going to be great enough. Come and taste it.

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