Tag Archives: zeman

Vučić easily wins presidential victory to consolidate power across Serbia’s government

Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić easily won the weekend presidential election in Serbia. (Facebook)

For decades, presidential politics in parliamentary democracies were boring affairs — if popular elections were even held for the position, they typically featured technocrats or independents. Politicians, if they ran for what are mostly ceremonial presidencies, would be episodes that ended a successful political career.  

That’s still generally the case in western Europe — presidents like former Labour firebrand Michael D. Higgins in Ireland, one-time foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Germany, and the charismatic communist Giorgio Napolitano in Italy all ended (or are ending) their political careers as figureheads.

But increasingly, in emerging democracies in eastern Europe, it’s becoming a power play for popular prime ministers to wage campaigns for a previously ceremonial presidency, using the ‘mandate’ of popular election as a bid to suffuse the presidency with far more than ceremonial power.

It is a gambit that’s worked in the Czech Republic and in Turkey, where presidents Miloš Zeman (since 2013) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (since 2014) have succeeded, to some degree, in shifting some power from the parliamentary branch of government to the presidential. The Czech Republic remains a parliamentary democracy, but Zeman, who is running for reelection in 2018, shrewdly took advantage of the country’s first direct presidential elections to carve a new role for the Czech presidency in domestic and foreign policymaking. Erdoğan not only won the Turkish presidency, but hopes to formalize constitutional changes to enshrine presidential power in a high-stakes April 16 referendum.

It failed in Slovakia, where sitting prime minister Robert Fico lost the 2014 presidential election to independent businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska. So it’s a power move that can sometimes backfire — Fico managed to remain Slovakian prime minister, but his center-left party dropped from 83 seats to 49 in the National Assembly in last March’s parliamentary elections after a swing of 16% away from Fico’s party.

There will be no such regrets for prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, who easily won a first-round victory with 55% of the vote among an 11-candidate field, cementing control of the Serbian government not only in the hands of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS), but, in particular, under the personal command of Vučić, who nudged incumbent Tomislav Nikolić to stand aside from a reelection bid in late February.

It will make Vučić even more powerful than Boris Tadić, a center-left and pro-EU leader who similarly dominated Serbian politics as president from 2004 to 2012. Though Nikolić narrowly defeated Tadić five years ago in a runoff, Vučić (and not Nikolić) held more sway over Serbian government over the last half-decade, increasing his grip on power over a series of three parliamentary elections between 2012 and 2016. Vučić’s presidential victory means that power is now likely to swing (once again) to the Novi Dvor, the Serbian presidential palace.

Over the next two months, as he prepares to take the presidential oath on May 31, Vučić, who remains prime minister for the time being, is likely to choose one of several cabinet members as his successor — leading names include two independents appointed by Vučić to his cabinet, finance minister Dušan Vujović or public administration minister Ana Brnabić (who would not only be Serbia’s first female prime minister, but its first openly lesbian one, too). Nikolić, over the weekend, hinted that he would retire from party politics altogether, which would seem to eliminate him as prime minister. Former justice minister Nikola Selaković, a rising star within the SNS, is also often mentioned.  Continue reading Vučić easily wins presidential victory to consolidate power across Serbia’s government

Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election


It’s becoming a more German Europe in more ways that one.Romania Flag Icon

In a stunning upset victory, Sibiu mayor Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German, defeated prime minister Victor Ponta, in Sunday’s Romanian presidential election, challenging confident predictions that Ponta would easily take the presidency.

Ponta’s center-left Partidul Social Democrat (PSD, Social Democratic Party), dominated both the December 2013 national parliamentary elections and the May 2014 European parliamentary elections, and Ponta entered the runoff as the prohibitive favorite after a resounding victory in the October 2 first round, when he took 40.44% of the vote to just 30.37% for Iohannis, the new leader of the center-right Partidul Național Liberal (PNL, National Liberal Party).

But Ponta’s 10-point lead disguised the fact that he fell 10% short of an absolute majority and, as voters’ minds focused on the runoff, Iohannis gained from a surge in turnout — from around 53% in the first round to over 64% in the runoff.

That’s despite the endorsement that Ponta won from third-place challenger, Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu, a former PNL leader and the country’s prime minister between 2004 and 2008, who founded the Partidul Liberal Reformator (PLR, Liberal Reformist Party) in July, helped boost Iohannis to an unexpectedly wide margin of victory — 54.50% to just 45.49% for Ponta.

Iohannis, a physics teacher by training, has served as mayor of Sibiu, a city in Transylvania, since 2000, and he led the relatively small Forumul Democrat al Germanilor din România (FDGR, Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania) from 2002 to 2013. As outgoing incumbent Traian Băsescu receded from the spotlight after a decade as president, Iohannis assumed the leadership of the PNL, the larger of Romania’s two major opposition parties, though Iohannis also had the support of Băsescu’s Partidul Democrat-Liberal (PD-L, Democratic Liberal Party).


Though the PNL joined forces with Ponta (pictured above) in 2011 to form the Social Liberal Union, it left the coalition in February 2014 to enter opposition, eyeing an alliance with the PD-L. When the PNL suffered disappointing losses in the May European elections, however, its leader Crin Antonescu stepped down, paving the way for Iohannis to reboot the party and become the joint PNL/PD-L presidential candidate.

Though ethnic Germans settled much of Transylvania, including the city of Sibiu, two waves of German exodus, first after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Iron Curtain, have left few German-speaking enclaves in Romania. Today, just over 4% of Romanians are ethnically German. Continue reading Iohannis upsets Ponta in Romanian presidential election

Kiska elected president of Slovakia in setback for Fico


Robert Fico’s attempt to extend his control over both the Slovakian parliament and presidency failed Saturday, when former businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska (pictured above) overwhelmingly defeated Fico in the second-round runoff.slovakia flag

Though Fico narrowly led in the first round, Kiska won a decisive victory with 59.38% of the vote. Fico, the incumbent prime minister, won just 40.61%. Kiska, an electrical engineer by training, made his fortune in the installment payments / credit business. Eight years ago, he founded Dobrý anjel (Good Angel), a charitable organization that helps provide funds for the seriously ill.

Kiska’s victory parallels the rise of Andrej Babiš, also a former businessman, who became the deputy prime minister and finance minister of the Czech Republic after his new center-right party nearly won last October’s Czech parliamentary elections. Babiš, interestingly enough, is Slovak by birth. Though Kiska will have a relatively circumscribed role in Slovak politics, due to the largely ceremonial nature of the Slovak presidency, the emergence of figures like Kiska and Babiš could augur the rise of a new, pragmatic center-right in central Europe whose leaders come from the business world and not from the fraught economics and tainted politics (on both the right and the left of the immediate post-Cold War period).

Fico, the leader of Slovakia’s main center-left party, Smer – sociálna demokracia (Direction — Social Democracy), has led the country’s government for six of the past eight years. His defeat on Saturday will undoubtedly weaken his position as prime minister, given that his critics can argue the election was a referendum on Fico’s record. Smer won’t face voters again until 2016, but it was Fico’s choice to contest the presidential election, making his defeat on Sunday almost entirely self-inflicted.  Continue reading Kiska elected president of Slovakia in setback for Fico

Fico, Kiska advance to Slovak presidential runoff


Slovak prime minister Robert Fico led in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Saturday, but he’ll face stiff competition in the March 29 runoff from political neophyte Andrej Kiska.slovakia flag

Fico won 28.0% of the vote and Kiska took 24.0% — both contenders were expected to finish in the top two spots and advance to the final round.  The big surprise in Saturday’s election, however, was the strength of third-place finisher Radoslav Procházka, a Christian democratic independent who won 21.2% of the vote.  Milan Kňažko, an actor, also a Christian democrat, and a top Slovak leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, won 12.9% of the vote.

The results mean that Fico (pictured above) will face a very tough time winning an absolute majority against Kiska in two weeks’ time.

The outcome of the election itself isn’t as significant as the surrounding context.  Slovakia’s presidency is essentially ceremonial, though the president formally nominates the prime minister and some members of Slovakia’s constitutional court and other judicial offices.  Though the president can veto routine bills passed by the unicameral Národná rada (National Council), a simple majority of the National Council can override the presidential veto.

That means that the Slovak presidency is much more like the ceremonial German presidency instead of the truly powerful French presidency — and even, from a constitutional perspective, weaker than the Czech presidency.

Accordingly, the election is important for two reasons.  First, the election has now become a referendum on Fico and his governing center-left party, Smer – sociálna demokracia (Direction — Social Democracy).

Second, if Fico wins, his elevation to the presidency will necessitate the selection of a new prime minister and government.  Continue reading Fico, Kiska advance to Slovak presidential runoff

Sobotka turns to forming government after troubling internal ČSSD revolt


Normally, party leaders face the boot when they lose elections, not after they win them.czech

But that’s what happened in the Czech Republic, when the center-left Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) narrowly topped the country’s parliamentary elections in late October with just over 20% of the vote.

Though the Social Democrats won the election, they took just 50 out of 200 seats in the Poslanecká sněmovna (the Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Czech parliament, and only nearly edged out a new populist, anti-corruption, business-friendly party, the Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), founded just two years ago by wealth businessman Andrej Babiš.

That left the leader of the Social Democrats, Bohuslav Sobotka, in a difficult position.  The fractured result means that the Social Democrats will have to find at least another 50 deputies in order to govern — and despite the willingness of the Social Democrats to work alongside the Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) for the first time in the post-Soviet era, the 33 seats that the Communists won won’t alone be enough to float a Social Democrat-led government.

But what left his leadership truly in question was a split between two wings of his party, a pro-Sobotka wing that hopes to keep its distance from the Czech Republic’s new president, Miloš Zeman, and a pro-Zeman wing that seeks closer collaboration between the two.  Zeman led the Social Democrats over a decade ago, and he served as Czech prime minister from 1998 to 2002.  A falling-out with the ČSSD leadership in the mid-2000s, however, caused Zeman to quit the Social Democrats and form a new party.

Zeman triumphed in his own right in the January 2013 presidential election — the first such direct election in Czech politics — and has spent the greater part of the year trying to muscle even more power for the Czech presidency at the expense of the parliamentary government.

So almost immediately following the election, Zeman (pictured above, left, with Sobotka) and top members of the pro-Zeman wing of the Social Democrats, including the party’s deputy leader Michal Hašek, held a secret meeting.  That preceded a call for Sobotka to step down as leader on the basis that Sobotka’s personalized, centralized campaign led to a poorer-than-expected result.

The ‘coup’ soon fell apart, though — Hašek and other participants in the secret meeting with Zeman lied about it, Sobotka rallied his supporters  against Zeman’s interference in internal party affairs, Czech overwhelming blamed Hašek for causing political instability and so, for now, Sobotka remains leader and Hašek has stepped down as deputy chair.

Sobotka won a battle, but it’s far from clear that he’ll even be the next prime minister.  Continue reading Sobotka turns to forming government after troubling internal ČSSD revolt

Czech election results: a fractured and uncertain Chamber of Deputies


In September, voters in some of Europe’s most economically stable countries (Germany, Austria and even Norway) happily turned out to support their incumbent governments.  But in October, the Czech Republic’s election demonstrates that most of Europe remains under incredible social, economic and political stress.czech

Czech voters selected members to the lower house of the Czech parliament between two days of voting on Friday and today.  The result is a fragmented mess — it’s the most fractured election result since the May 2012 Greek parliamentary election, which resulted in a hung parliament and necessitated a second set of elections in Greece just a month later.

Here are the results:

czech 2013

Seven different parties — ranging from free-market liberals to communists to political neophytes — won enough votes to gain seats in the 200-member Poslanecká sněmovna (the Chamber of Deputies), but it’s not clear who will be able to form a government.  Voters clearly rejected the previous center-right government’s approach to austerity and budget discipline, but split over what they want to replace it.  Turnout fell below 60% for the first time in over a decade.

In purely political terms, the result gives even more power to Czech president Miloš Zeman (pictured above), who came to office after winning the country’s first direct presidential election in January.  On the list of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in this weekend’s election, perhaps no one is a greater winner than Zeman, who is entitled to appoint the prime minister and therefore, will shape the first steps in the coalition negotiations.

Since taking office, Zeman has pushed to empower the Czech presidency at the expense of the Czech parliament.  After the country’s center-right government fell earlier this summer, Zeman appointed Jiří Rusnok as his hand-picked technocratic prime minister, but Rusnok’s (and Zeman’s) inability to win a vote of confidence led to this weekend’s snap elections.  Rusnok has served as a caretaker prime minister for the past three months, and he could wind up serving quite a while longer if no governing coalition can be formed.

The center-left Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) technically won the election — but just barely, and with far less support than polls showed just a month ago.  Despite winning more votes than any other party, the Social Democrats won just one out of every five votes, and it’s the party’s worst result in two decades.  It’s not necessarily clear that the party’s leader, former finance minister Bohuslav Sobotka, will even have the chance to form a government.  There’s simply no credible case that the Social Democrats have a mandate for much of anything.

Though Zeman, a Social Democratic prime minister between 1998 and 2002, broke away from the Social Democrats only in 2007, the party remains divided over the extent to which it wants to associate with Zeman now that he holds the Czech presidency.  What’s certain is that the poor result will weaken Sobotka, who leads the anti-Zeman wing of the party.  That means Zeman could bypass Sobotka and appoint a friendlier Social Democrat as prime minister, such as deputy leader Michal Hašek or perhaps Jan Mládek, who was widely tipped to become the next finance minister.

The real winner in today’s election is the Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), founded in 2011 by millionaire Andrej Babiš, which nearly overtook the Social Democrats in terms of support — they will hold just three fewer seats than the Social Democrats in the new Chamber of Deputies.  Babiš is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the Czech Republic, and he’s led a ‘pox-on-all-your-houses’ campaign that rejects the mainstream Czech political elite as corrupt and dishonest.  Babiš owns founded Agrofert, originally a food processing and agricultural company, but now a conglomerate that’s the fourth-largest business in the Czech Republic.  Though his platform is relatively nebulous, he’s called for reforms to reduce corruption and end immunity for politicians from prosecution.

Think of Babiš as a cross between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Georgian prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, perhaps, and think of ANO as a more business-friendly version of Beppe Grillo’s Italian protest group, the Five Star Movement.  Given Babiš’s recent effort to buy a top Czech media company, the comparisons to Berlusconi have become particularly sharp:

A Czech tabloid recently nicknamed Andrej Babis, the new star on the Czech political scene, “Babisconi.” But, when compared with Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, he quips: “I have no interest whatsoever in underaged girls.”

In third place is the Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), which won about 15% of the vote, the party’s second-best result since the fall of the Soviet Union.  The party is the heir to the old Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which governed the country from 1968 until 1990 as a Soviet-aligned, one-party state.  Though the Communists have moderated their approach somewhat in the 21st century, and though they were expected to participate in a Social Democratic-led government, the party remains unapologetically communist (unlike other former eastern far-left parties, such as Die Linke in Germany, which espouse a more moderate form of democratic socialism).  Given that the base of the Czech Communists was once older, rural voters, its comeback today says much about the economic despair in the Czech Republic these days.    Continue reading Czech election results: a fractured and uncertain Chamber of Deputies

Photo of the day: Flipping the bird to the Czech Republic’s president


Just a couple of months after social democratic chancellor hopeful Peer Steinbrück flipped the bird on the cover of a top German news magazine, the middle finger is back at the heart of a European election campaign.czech

With the Czech Republic set to vote on Friday and Saturday in parliamentary elections, artist David Černý erected a 30-foot-tall purple hand with an outstretched middle finger and is floating it down the Vltava that divides Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, pointed toward the presidential palace and Czech president Miloš Zeman:

Mr. Cerny said the monumental hand with its 16-foot-long outstretched middle finger, placed on a float facing the castle, was a “scream of alarm” against the state of politics in the Czech Republic, endemic corruption and Mr. Zeman, a former leftist prime minister, whom he accused of becoming intoxicated with power.  He said the sculpture, which he gave an unprintable title, was also aimed at the country’s Communist Party, which could gain a share of power in the coming elections for the first time since the revolution that overthrew communism more than two decades ago.

“This finger is aimed straight at the castle politics,” Mr. Cerny said by phone from Prague, the Czech capital. “After 23 years, I am horrified at the prospect of the Communists returning to power and of Mr. Zeman helping them to do so.”

Here’s a longer look at the circumstances leading up to the weekend’s snap elections.

Photo credit to Michal Cizekmichal/AFP/Getty.


New Czech party hopes to ride anti-corruption momentum to election gains

Wallenstein view

It’s been a tumultuous year in Czech politics — a surveillance scandal involving the prime minister’s love triangle brought down the government, a power-hungry president elected in the first direct presidential election earlier this year is working to claw power away from the parliament, and what’s left of the Czech right boils down to a contest between an eccentric Bohemian aristocrat and a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. czech

Though it sounds like the long-lost plot of a Leoš Janáček opera, it’s the backdrop to this weekend’s parliamentary elections, which should be no less dramatic than the events that shaped them.

What was once expected to be an easy victory for the country’s main center-left party, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) now looks it will be a less dominant victory — so much that the Social Democrats are no longer considered a lock to lead the next Czech government.  It’s the latest twist in a series of turns that could have major consequences for the economic and political development of the Czech Republic (or ‘Czechia‘ as its current president wants to call it) and its 10.5 million residents, to say nothing of the future expansion of the eurozone within central and eastern Europe. Continue reading New Czech party hopes to ride anti-corruption momentum to election gains

Czech parliament dissolved, October elections likely to strengthen ČSSD, Zeman


In a widely anticipated move, the Czech parliament voted to dissolve its lower house yesterday, clearing the way for fresh elections in October and ending what had been a constitutional battle between president Miloš Zeman and his opponents since the collapse of former prime minister Petr Nečas over a corruption and surveillance scandal. czech

In a blow to Nečas’s Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party), its one-time ally Tradice Odpovědnost Prosperita 09 or ‘TOP 09′ (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09), a liberal party led by former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg joined with the Czech Republic’s center-left parties to dissolve the 200-member Poslanecká sněmovna (Chamber of Deputies).

Zeman is likely to announce elections for October 25-26 and a formal date is expected by the end of the week.

Polls show that the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) holds a wide lead going into the elections, which means that its leader Bohuslav Sobotka (pictured above) is widely favored to become the next prime minister of the Czech Republic.  The Social Democrats outpoll each of the Civic Democrats, TOP 09 and the Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) by something like a 2:1 or 3:1 margin in most surveys of voter opinion.

Even before the Nečas government fell, however, the Civic Democrats had become extraordinarily unpopular due to the poor performance of the Czech economy and the government’s push to raise taxes and cut spending — a familiar story throughout much of Europe these days.  The Social Democrats are expected to campaign on a platform of spending more funds on infrastructure instead of further budget cuts, and they may be able to do so now that the Czech economy appears to be moving from recession to growth in the second quarter of 2013.  But because the Social Democrats have also committed to positioning the Czech Republic for membership in the eurozone by the end of the decade, their capacity for wide budget deficits will be constrained.

Here’s the most recent survey — an August 19 PPM Factum poll that understates Social Democrat support compared to most polls:

czechpoll0819 copy

Sobotka, a former deputy prime minister and finance minister, has ruled out a formal governing coalition that will include the Czech Communists, but even Sobotka even concedes that a potential Social Democratic government would depend on the Communists for support for the first time since the end of the Cold War, which will result in tricky negotiations with the largely pro-EU Social Democrats and the eurosceptic Communists.  But the high number of voters who remain undecided and support none of the major parties underlines the broad disillusionment among Czech voters for the entire political system.

Zeman initially appointed Jiří Rusnok as a caretaker prime minister in July, though Rusnok narrowly lost a vote of confidence earlier this month, leading to yesterday’s dissolution vote.  Zeman’s decision is widely viewed as an attempt to expand the influence of the Czech presidency vis-à-vis the Czech parliament — Zeman became president earlier this year after the first direct presidential elections in Czech history, and he has argued his direct mandate entitles him to a more sweeping role.  Despite the failure of the Rusnok government to win a confidence vote, Zeman has skillfully muscled his way to dominating Czech politics throughout the summer, though early elections hold risks for him as well.

Though Zeman easily took advantage of the collapse of the Civic Democrats, he faces a different and more difficult challenge with respect to the Social Democrats, a party he once led as prime minister from 1998 to 2002.  But Zeman left the Social Democrats in 2007 and he now leads a small splinter group which literally calls itself the Zemanovci, or ‘Zeman’s people.’  But Zeman’s small party seems unlikely to win the 5% support necessary to enter the Chamber of Deputies, the threshold required under the Czech electoral system, which relies solely on proportional representation to determine the lower house’s composition.

It makes the Zeman-Sobotka relationship the most important in Czech politics right now.   Continue reading Czech parliament dissolved, October elections likely to strengthen ČSSD, Zeman

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


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.

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

Rudd returns as prime minister of Australia in advance of September election


There’s not a single week that goes by in world politics that’s not amazing, and being away this week in France for a wedding proves it.

We’valbaniae seen the longtime prime minister of Albania, Sali Berisha, concede defeat to the Albanian Socialist party leader Edi Rama after Sunday’s election (read Suffragio‘s preview of the June 23 Albanian election here), which apparently won 84 seats to just 56 for Berisha’s center-right Democratic Party, a strong majority in the country’s unicameral parliament.  I’ll certainly have a bit more to add later in July when I’m back about how this could boost Albania’s chances for European Union membership — and I think it does.  Rama’s pulled his party out of its communist roots into the social democratic center, and he’s now gunning to pull Albania ever closer to the center of Europe, so he’ll start off as prime minister with a strong start.

Wczeche’ve also seen the appointment of a new prime minister of the Czech Republic in Jiří Rusnok, an economic adviser to the country’s new president Miloš Zeman, which raises even greater questions about Zeman’s push to become the country’s most powerful public servant following the resignation of the country’s prime minister Petr Nečas earlier this month.  Nečas, prime minister since 2010 and already unpopular as the leader of the center-right Civic Democratic Party over austerity measures and a flatlining economy, couldn’t withstand charges of eavesdropping against his chief of staff, with whom he is linked romantically.  In naming Rusnok, though, Zeman is indicating that he will try to take a very large role in policymaking, though the Civil Democrats want to appoint popular parliamentary speaker Miroslava Nemcova as the country’s first female prime minister and Zeman’s former colleagues, the Social Democrats, want to hold new elections.  More on this soon, too — it’s going to set the course of the relationship between the Czech president and prime minister for years to come, just over 100 days after Zeman took office following the first direct election of a Czech president.  It’s a move that The Economist called ‘Zeman’s coup,’ and that’s not far from the truth.

That’s all while the Turkish and Brazilian protests continue apace (more on that this week), while the world waits in anxiety to learn about the health of South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela and after former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf will be tried for treason by the new government of Nawaz Sharif, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled in favor of full federal rights for same-sex marriage and overturned California’s ban on gay marriage.  Quite a week.

BAustralia Flag Iconut the most important news in world politics has come from Australia, where former prime minister Kevin Rudd (pictured above) has stunningly defeated Julia Gillard as the Australian Labor Party’s prime minister on a 57-45 leadership ballot — he’s already been sworn in.  More on that tomorrow too.  I’m pretty biased in favor of world heads of government named Kevin, but it’s not biased to say that Rudd’s sudden return as Australia’s prime minister transforms the September 14 election from an inevitable Labor loss into something much more competitive.  I’m on holiday, but I will hope to have some thoughtful analysis on what this means for Australia, Labor, the opposition Coalition, Rudd, Gillard, and September’s election within hours.


With Nečas out, the future of Czech government is in Zeman’s hands


In his first 100 days in office, Miloš Zeman, the former social democratic prime minister who became the Czech Republic’s first elected president, made it clear that he intends his role to be much more powerful than a merely ceremonial head of state, pursuant to a Czech constitution that gives somewhat more power to the presidency than in neighboring countries like Germany, Poland or Italy.czech

But with the resignation of prime minister Petr Nečas, Zeman has an opportunity to imprint his vision of government on the Czech Republic beyond what he might have expected when he was elected in January 2013 over the aristocratic center-right foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Nečas’s resignation on Monday capped a fast-moving weeklong drama in Czech politics that has plunged the country of 10.5 million citizens into a period of uncertainty.

The crisis began last week with an unprecedentedly wide police raid of government offices that resulted in the arrests of eight government officials, including Nečas’s chief of staff, Jana Nagyová.  Though corruption has long been issue in Czech government, it often goes unpunished, and when corrupt officials are charged, they are rarely arrested in such a sweeping and high-profile manner.  Milan Kovanda, head of Czech military intelligence, and his predecessor Ondrej Páleník, were both arrested as well.

Nečas (pictured above) announced last week that he is divorcing Radka Nečasová, his wife of three decades and mother of his four children. But he has long been rumored to have had a romantic relationship with Nagyová, who is accused of bribery and abuse of power for allegedly having military spies follow Nečas’s wife.  The widespread belief that Nagyová is believed to have committed crimes that are associated with her relationship with Nečas made his position as prime minister increasingly difficult.  That, in turn, led to Nečas’s capitulation on Monday when he announced he would step down as prime minister and as leader of the Czech Republic’s main center-right party, the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party).  Nečas will remain as a caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.

The center-right ODS has governed in coalition with Schwarzenberg’s liberal Tradice Odpovědnost Prosperita 09 or ‘TOP 09′ (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09) and with various members of a third, minor conservative party, Věci veřejné (VV, Public Affairs), since the May 2010 election, though the government nearly lost power when its smallest partner Public Affairs nearly imploded in 2012 over its own corruption scandals.  Despite Nečas’s resignation, Schwarzenberg’s allies want to try to form a new government under deputy ODS chairman Martin Kuba, the current trade and industry minister, that will continue to govern through the end of the current parliamentary term in May 2014.

ČSSD leader Bohuslav Sobotka, however, is calling for early elections and has promised that any new ODS-led government will meet with a vote of no confidence that Kuba is not certain to win.

The decision rests entirely in Zeman’s hands — he can give Kuba a mandate to form a new government, he can call early elections, or he could try to give the mandate to Sobotka or, more likely, a technocratic government that would be expected to do Zeman’s bidding for the next 11 months.

Though ODS holds 53 seats and TOP 09 holds 41 seats, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), with 56 seats, has the greatest number of seats in the 200-seat Poslanecká sněmovna (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Czech parliament.  Zeman, a former  ČSSD leader and prime minister from 1998 to 2002, broke with the ČSSD in 2009, and the ČSSD sponsored an alternative candidate for president earlier this year in Jiří Dienstbier Jr., a young senator, rising star and son of a famous Czech dissident.  But since becoming president, Zeman has taken steps to realign himself with the ČSSD, speaking to the party’s annual congress in March 2013 and otherwise worked to bridge the gap between with the current ČSSD leadership.

Though Schwarzenberg emerged as a surprisingly strong contender for the presidency in January, the ODS candidate finished in eight place with less than 2.5% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.  The party remains relatively unpopular after implementing an all-too-familiar austerity program of tax increases, budget cuts and reductions in government services alongside an economy that contracted by an estimated 1% in 2012 and that features a rising unemployment rate that’s currently at 7.3%. The fantastic scandal over the past week that’s now ended Nečas’s career came when the ČSSD was already in a strong position in advance of the next parliamentary elections — polls show the ČSSD with a wide lead.  One poll last month gave the ČSSD 24% support, with the more leftist (though increasingly a potential ČSSD coalition ally) Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (KSČM, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) far behind in second place with just 10.5% support, with TOP 09 at 9.5% support and the ODS with 9% support.

Zeman, who passed the 100-day mark of his presidency just last week, has taken an aggressive posture as president, convinced that the fact of his direct electoral mandate (unlike past presidents Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, who were elected indirectly by the Czech parliament) gives Zeman more authority to assert himself over the Czech government.  He immediately set out to boost Czech ties with the European Union by flying the EU flag at Prague Castle, the presidential residence, and signing amendments to the EU Treaty of Lisbon, both of which marked a 180-degree turn from the relatively antagonistic EU policy of Klaus, his immediate predecessor.  He’s also tangled with Schwarzenberg over the right to name the country’s ambassadors.

Why Miloš Zeman won the Czech presidency


Czech voters returned to the polls yesterday and today for the runoff in the Czech Republic’s first direct election for president.czech

Former social democratic prime minister Miloš Zeman has defeated the current more conservative foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg by a margin of around 54.8% to just 45.2% for Schwarzenberg.

Schwarzenberg emerged as a surprise challenger to Zeman after the first round, edging out former prime minister Jan Fischer, setting up a runoff that  featured two candidates with incredibly colorful personalities.

Schwarzenberg, who belongs to the Bavarian nobility, spent much of his life in Austria, where his family lived in exile during the Communist occupation of Czechoslovakia, increasingly fighting in the 1980s alongside Václav Havel to liberate the country from Soviet rule.  As the leader of the Tradice Odpovědnost Prosperita 09 or ‘TOP 09′ (Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09), which he formed for the 2010 Czech parliamentary elections, his party is the second-largest member of the coalition headed by prime minister  Petr Nečas, the leader of the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party).

Zeman, formerly a prime minister from 1998 to 2002 from the Czech Republic’s main center-left party, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), is known for his sharp wit and aggressive persona, but lost his first run for the presidency in 2003 to the outgoing incumbent, Václav Klaus.  Zeman, at odds with the current ČSSD leadership, left the party in 2009 to form his own.

While Schwarzenberg peaked at the end of the first round, and certainly entered the second round with a bit of momentum, it wasn’t enough to power a 75-year-old aristocrat with a penchant for napping, into the Czech presidency.

It certainly didn’t help that Schwarzenberg spent three decades outside of the country and his Czech language skills were sometimes seen as less than pristine, and Zeman’s campaign took advantage of the perceived ‘otherness’ of his opponent.

Zeman’s supporters even intimated, despite any evidence, that Schwarzenberg’s family collaborated with Nazis.

World War II featured as an issue in a debate between the two candidates when Schwarzenberg claimed that the Beneš decrees, which dealt with the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II would today be considered a war crime, and Zeman responded by attacking Schwarzenberg as a Sudaten German himself.

Zeman and Schwarzenberg both achieved endorsements from unlikely sources in the second round.

Despite their ideological differences, Zeman long ago won Klaus’s endorsement (Klaus also enabled Zeman’s prime ministerial term in 1998 when he agreed to support the government in exchange for patronage and government positions for the ODS).  Zeman and Klaus belong to the same generation of Czech political leadership, and many see in Zeman a lot of the same qualities as Klaus, who has been outspokenly conservative as president, outspokenly eurosceptic and even cast doubts on the validity of manmade climate change.

Fischer, who could have been expected to endorse Schwarzenberg as a more center-right candidate, failed to do so.  He didn’t endorse Zeman, but he said that he could not vote for Schwarzenberg.

Furthermore, the official ČSSD candidate, Jiří Dienstbier Jr., who finished a surprisingly strong fourth place in the first round, said that he could not vote for Zeman.

Although other ČSSD leaders endorsed Zeman, they were certainly less than enthusiastic in their support.  Although it’s likely that Zeman won the share of ČSSD voters, his win today makes it likely that the next five years will feature an awkward relationship between Zeman’s camp and the formal ČSSD leadership.

The tattooed fifth-place finisher, Vladimír Franz, endorsed Zeman, after attracting worldwide attention in advance of the first round.  Although Franz’s voters likely leaned to the left, they were younger and urban, a constituency to which Schwarzenberg appealed — Zeman’s voter base featured older and more rural voters.

Although Havel, who served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1993 and, after the 1993 breakup of the union, the Czech Republic, until 2003, wasn’t as universally popular within the Czech Republic, I wonder if the election would have turned out differently if Havel were still alive to endorse and campaign for his longtime friend Schwarzenberg.  Havel died just 13 months ago in December 2011.

Ultimately, the massive unpopularity of the Nečas government, certainly made a Schwarzenberg victory an uphill challenge, given the double misery of a troubled economy and, like in many European countries these days, pursuing a policy of budget cuts and economic reform.  In the first round, the official ODS candidate, Přemysl Sobotka, a senator, won just 2.46% and placed eighth out of nine candidates.

Zeman and Schwarzenberg to face off for Czech presidency

Human Rights Council, High-Level

This weekend’s Czech presidential election resulted in something of a surprise, with center-right foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (pictured above) surging to a very close second place against front-running center-left candidate and former prime minister Miloš Zeman.czech

Zeman and Schwarzenberg will now compete in a runoff to be held on January 25 and 26 in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential election in its post-Cold War history to succeed Václav Klaus, the Czech Republic’s president since 2003, an outspoken conservative and euroskeptic.

Schwarzenberg won a surprisingly high 23.40% of the vote, trailing less than 1% behind Zeman, edging out a statistician and former caretaker prime minister Jan Fischer, who won just 16.35% and nearly finished in fourth place behind another center-left candidate, Jiří Dienstbier Jr.  Fischer led polls as recently as a week or two ago, though his performance in a debate against Zeman in early January was seen as lackluster, fueling a boom for Zeman’s poll support heading into last weekend’s vote.


Ominously for the current Czech government, the candidate of the governing Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party), Přemysl Sobotka, a senator, finished in 8th place with just 2.46% of the vote, likely a result of his relatively obscurity in a field of longtime titans of Czech political life and of the brutal austerity measures that the current ODS-led government of Petr Nečas.

Schwarzenberg won throughout the center of the country in his native Bohemia and in Prague and other urban areas; Zeman dominated much of the rest of the country, including rural Moravia in the east and rural areas in the north.

So what should we expect in the final runoff?  Continue reading Zeman and Schwarzenberg to face off for Czech presidency

Czech prepare for first direct presidential elections


Unlike most countries with a parliamentary-based prime minister as head of government, the Czech Republic’s president holds more than ceremonial powers — and that makes this weekend’s Czech presidential election, the first direct election by voters of the Czech president in the post-Soviet era, a bit more important than a ceremonial formality. czech

Two candidates, Jan Fischer (pictured above, right) and Miloš Zeman (pictured above, left) are largely seen leading the nine-candidate field.  Following the first round, to be held Friday and Saturday, the top two candidate will compete in a runoff to be held on January 25 and 26.

The Czech president has the power to veto bills passed by the Czech parliament as well as the power to appoint judges to the supreme court and the constitutional court, as well as members of the Czech national bank and members of the office that implements the national budget.  In many instances, the Czech president and the Czech prime minister act as co-executives, especially with regard to matters of foreign relations.

In addition to the unique Czech constitutional framework, however, it’s worth noting that since the emergence of Czechoslovakia from behind the Soviet-dominated Iron Curtain and the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993, two incredibly forceful personalities have held the office of the Czech presidency:

  • Václav Havel, president until 2003, a former playwright and author and public intellectual whose dissident efforts began with the Prague Spring in 1968 and who was jailed several times in the 1970s and 1980s by the Soviet-controlled communist Czech government.  His moral authority and his widespread international respect gave him an incredibly broad platform as president.
  • Václav Klaus, who succeeded Havel and who will leave office this year (amid a bit of scandal over presidential clemency), is an outspoken conservative who founded the Czech Republic’s main center-right party, the Občanská demokratická strana (ODS, Civic Democratic Party), and who served as prime minister from 1992 to 1997.  As president, he’s taken strong stands in favor of limiting European Union power as one of the loudest critics of the EU’s 2007 Lisbon treaty (though he ultimately signed the treaty, allowing it to go into effect in 2009).

So as voters head to the polls in the first presidential election of its kind in the Czech Republic (Havel and Klaus were selected indirectly by the Czech parliament), it’s worth noting that the next Czech president will likely play an important role in Czech and European affairs alike.

Fischer, who until recently led many polls throughout the muted campaign, would be the Czech Republic’s first Jewish president (and, indeed, the world’s first Jewish head of state outside of Israel).  A soft-spoken statistician, he headed the Czech Statistical Office from 2003 to 2009, when he was selected as a technocratic, caretaker prime minister after prime minister Mirek Topolánek’s center-right government fell in March 2009 through the 2010 elections.  He is widely admired for his performance as prime minister, which included measures to protect the Roma, a minority group persecuted by Czech right-wing extremists.  In the presidential race, he has been criticized mostly for his membership in the Czech Communist Party during the Soviet era, and Fischer has apologized for that, despite claiming that he became a member only in order to keep his job in government.

Zeman, who until 2009 belonged to — and once led — the Czech Republic’s main center-left party, the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party), is as sharp-elbowed and brash as Fischer is mild-mannered, and he has narrowly begun to eclipse Fischer in the polls after being widely seen to have won a debate earlier this month.  He lost the 2003 presidential election to Klaus after serving as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, and he left the ČSSD four years ago to form his own party, the Strana Práv Občanů – Zemanovci (SPOZ, Party of Civil Rights — Zemanovci).

Ironically, Fischer and Zeman outpace the actual candidates of both the ODS and the ČSSD.

Continue reading Czech prepare for first direct presidential elections