Rusnok vote hardly a setback to Zeman’s long-term Czech presidential power grab

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Although it was caretaker prime minister Jiří Rusnok that lost today’s vote of no confidence by a margin of 100 to 93 in the Czech parliament, but the real loser is the Czech Republic’s new president Miloš Zeman — albeit only temporarily.czech

Zeman appointed Rusnok (pictured above) prime minister in late June after the collapse of the government of conservative prime minister Petr Nečas stemming from a sensational espionage and corruption scandal.  You might expect that, as in most parliamentary systems, Zeman would have appointed a replacement prime minister who comes from the party or coalition of parties that currently wields a majority.  Instead, he appointed Rusnok, an acolyte who served as Zeman’s finance minister from 2001 to 2002 and later as the minister of industry and trade under Zeman’s social democratic successor, Vladimír Špidla.

So what gives?

When Nečas resigned, it was a stroke of luck for Zeman, who took over as president only in March 2013 and who is pushing to consolidate more power within the presidency at the expense of the Czech parliament.  Though both of his predecessors — playwright and freedom fighter Václav Havel nor euroskpetic Václav Klaus — played outsized roles as president due to their gravitas and outspokenness, Zeman argues that his direct mandate from the Czech people should provide him a more hands-on role in setting Czech policy (Before January’s direct election, the Czech president was indirectly elected by the parliament).  By appointing his own economic adviser as prime minister, Zeman could immediately begin to shape the Czech government according to his own prerogative.

But Zeman’s presidential power grab is a longer-term project than just the Rusnok vote today, and though his attempt to install Rusnok failed, it served a very important purpose for Zeman by bringing the chief center-left party, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), more fully under his influence.  With polls showing that the ČSSD is set to win the next Czech parliamentary election, that’s arguably an even important goal for Zeman’s long-run designs than installing Rusnok as prime minister.

Though Zeman served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 as the leader of the country’s chief center-left party, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), Zeman left the party in 2007 over a spat with the leader at the time.  When Zeman reemerged last year as one of the frontrunners in the Czech presidential election, the Social Democrats remained split between pro-Zeman and anti-Zeman wings, though the party still ran its own candidate in the first round of the presidential election in January.  When Nečas resigned in May, current ČSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka immediately called for early elections.  In the ensuing month, however, pressure on Sobotka from deputy leader Michal Hašek and other pro-Zeman party members forced Sobotka to reverse course and support Rusnok instead.  So even though Rusnok lost today’s vote, it was a productive way for Zeman to bend the ČSSD back under his influence.  It could clear the path for Zeman to control the largest party in the 200-seat Poslanecká sněmovna (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Czech parliament.  Today’s vote also brought the far-left Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), which also supported Rusnok, in lockstep with the Social Democrats.

For now, while Nečas’s center-right Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party) has fewer seats (53) than the Social Democrats (56), the center-right parties that had governed in coalition since the previous May 2010 elections still continue to hold a clear majority.  That includes the Civic Democrats and the Tradice Odpovědnost Prosperita 09 or ‘TOP 09′ (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09), a free-market liberal party founded four years ago by the charming, aristocratic Karel Schwarzenberg.  Schwarzenberg, who had served as the Czech foreign minister from 2010 until the Nečas government fell, emerged as the surprise second-place finisher in the January presidential election, though he ultimately lost a narrow runoff to Zeman.

The most recent Median poll shows the Social Democrats with a massive lead in advance of the next election with 32.5% — compared to just 17% for TOP 09, 16.5% for the Communists and a meager 16% for the Civic Democrats.  In the poll, no other party reached 5%, the threshold necessary to win seats in the election, which is determined through a proportional representation system.

Schwarzenberg has now indicated he will support a motion to dissolve parliament and hold new elections, and if TOP 09, the Social Democrats and the Communists all join forces, they will have the 120 votes necessary to do so, putting the Czech Republic on course for elections later this autumn.  The Civic Democrats, under the leadership of Martin Kuba, the former trade and industry minister, are in horrible shape to wage an election today.  With the Social Democrats increasingly under Zeman’s influence, that’s obviously a superb result for Zeman.

But Zeman could also try to convince the Social Democrats to give him a second chance at appointing a new prime minister (including Rusnok yet again) for another vote of confidence.  Pursuant to the Czech constitution, if Zeman’s second choice loses a vote of no confidence, it would be up to Miroslava Němcová, as the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, to appoint a third prime minister to attempt to win confidence, after which the country would automatically hold early elections.  After Nečas resigned, the Civic Democrats had initially supported Němcová to lead an interim government after Nečas’s resignation (who would have been the first female prime minister of the Czech Republic).

But there’s no time limit under the Czech constitution for Zeman to appoint a new prime minister.  So if the Chamber of Deputies doesn’t move to dissolve parliament for early elections (remember that requires 120 votes), Zeman has indicated he will leave Rusnok in place for an indefinite amount of time while the investigation into Nečas is finished.  Given that elections are due by May 2014 anyway, Zeman may easily be able to run out the clock through parliamentary maneuvering.

Zeman is likely to emerge stronger from either approach —  it’s a ‘heads, I win; tails, you lose’ proposition.  As long as the current stalemate continues, Zeman stands to consolidate ever more power as the de facto head of the Czech center-left, which seems set for a landslide victory whether Czech voters go to the polls in late 2013 or early 2014.

Photo credit to Filip Jandourek / Radio Paraha.

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