Miloš Zeman and Andrej Babiš share the limelight in a political system not designed for two personalities

The Czech Republic has a president (Miloš Zeman), reelected in January for a second term, whose party has no presence in Parliament, and a prime minister (Andrej Babiš) who was out of position between January and May due to lack of sufficient support among legislators. Zeman and Babiš have backed each other and share criticisms of Brussels - for example, they reject the European Union's refugee quotas - but their strong personalism and fickle positions are causing friction.

Andrej Babiš (left) and Miloš Zeman (right) during the inauguration of the former as prime minister, January 2018 [Czech Gov.]

▲ Andrej Babiš (left) and Miloš Zeman (right) during the inauguration of the former as prime minister, January 2018 [Czech Gov.]

article / Jokin de Carlos Sola

The political climate in the Czech Republic has not sedimented after the last electoral cycle. The legislative elections of October 20 and 21, 2017, called after a government crisis, saw a breakdown of the traditional parties and the arrival of many new faces in Parliament, giving rise to a political fractioning that has taken its toll.

Amid a hung Parliament, Andrej Babiš, leader of the best-performing party, ANO 2011, moved in December to form a minority Executive, becoming the first head of government in the history of the Czech Republic to come from neither the Civic Democrats nor the Social Democrats. In January, however, Babiš had to resign after losing a question of confidence; in May he succeeded in forming a new government, this time in coalition with the Social Democrats and, for the first time since the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the support of the Communists.

Against this backdrop of political disputes, presidential elections took place on January 12 and 13, 2018. The second round was contested by outgoing President Miloš Zeman, who was reelected, and Jirí Drahoš, in a contest that polarized the electorate between traditional economic protectionism and a critical stance towards the European Union (Zeman) and more open positions towards NATO and the EU (Drahoš).

In the end, Babiš and Zeman - former participants in the Velvet Revolution that put an end to the communist regime, after which both have had several ideological ups and downs, becoming controversial figures - have to share an institutional and political protagonism that is certainly complex. The Czech Republic has a parliamentary system, in which the president of the country is directly elected by the citizens and has the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, as well as to dissolve the bicameral parliament.

Legislative elections

In the 2017 Czech parliamentary elections, the ANO 2011 party won, whose name includes the year it was created and the acronym for Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, which together give rise in Czech to the word Yes. The election marked a parliamentary collapse of many of the old parties, including the Social Democrats of the ČSSD (from being the ruling party it dropped to sixth place), the Communists of the KSČM (they came in fifth place), the Christian Democrats of the KDU-ČSL (they were seventh) and the Liberals of TOP 09 (they finished eighth). The only old party to survive with relative strength were the conservatives of Civic Democracy (ODS), who finished second. Several new parties, on the other hand, gained relevance: this was the case, in addition to ANO itself, of the Pirate Party and the conservative and strongly nationalist Liberty and Direct Democracy (SPD), led by Tomio Okamura.

Andrej Babiš is called the Czech Donald Trump, not so much because of his ideology, but because of his flamboyant personality and his great fortune (he is the second richest man in the country). His statement of core values has been very fickle. Of communist origin, he founded his own political party in 2011, which he christened ANO 2011. It is a party with generally centrist views and a certain syncretism. It is also described as "populist" for its changes of speech, especially in relation to the European Union: before the general elections the party held Eurosceptic positions, to then develop a rather pro-EU policy from the Government.

Babiš was deputy prime minister and finance minister in the previous government led by Buhoslav Sobotka's Social Democrats. He is the owner of group media MFRA, which publishes two of the country's leading newspapers, Lidové noviny and Mladá fronta DNES, and operates the Óčko television company.

He is a controversial figure, not only because of some of his political stances, such as the rejection of the immigrant quotas established by the EU, but also because of several past scandals. He was accused of having collaborated with the secret police of the communist regime, of having fraudulently used EU subsidies and of participating in bribes for the sale of the state company Unipetrol, whose privatization was managed by Miloš Zeman, someone close to Babiš himself, when he was prime minister.


Apportionment of seats in the Chamber leave of the Czech Parliament [Wilkipedia].

Apportionment of seats in the Chamber leave of the Czech Parliament [Wilkipedia].


Presidential elections

The presidential election was held in January 2018. It was the second time that the president was elected by direct universal suffrage. Miloš Zeman, who was seeking reelection, and Jiri Drahoš, president of the Academy of Sciences, went to the second round. There were those who compared this electoral battle with the one between Macron and Le Pen in France, but the ideological comparison is not complete. Drahoš described himself as pro-European and pro-NATO, and advocated that the Czech Republic should assume a greater role in the European Union, but he was critical of the EU's policy of welcoming immigrants, both Muslim and African, and rejected refugee quotas.

In the end, Zeman won with 52% support, while Drahoš got 48%, a somewhat tighter result than in the previous presidential election. ANO 2011's support in the runoff was decisive for Zeman's victory. The districts of Prague, Brno and other liberal areas with larger urban populations voted for Drahoš, while the countryside and border areas voted for Zeman.

Miloš Zeman was a member of the Communist Party until 1970 and switched to the Social Democratic Party in 1992, whose leadership he held between 1993 and 2001, years in which he served as Czech prime minister. He left that party in 2007 and two years later created his own, baptized as the Civil Rights Party: an electoral platform for his presidential candidacies, which does not have deputies or senators. In this personalist training , traditional right-wing and left-wing positions are mixed. On the one hand, the party believes in a mixed Economics , with a preference for public services and a high state expense , in a protectionist conception of the Economics. On the other hand, it promotes a cultural conservatism that avoids multiculturalism and the arrival of immigrants. This has made the party very popular in rural areas close to the borders.

Zeman became president of the Czech Republic in 2013. Zeman's first presidential term was highly controversial inside and outside the country. With him in Prague Castle came the entrance in the European Union, but he has subsequently been one of the main opponents of EU quotas for immigrants and has supported both Poland and Russia in their disputes with the authorities in Brussels. Zeman's closeness to Putin sets him apart from most leaders of the Visegrad countries, who take an anti-Russian stance.

Two leaderships

From the presidency, Miloš Zeman has maintained the lines already marked in his first term. If in European affairs his rejection of refugee quotas has put him at odds with the EU leadership, his closeness to Israel, Russia and China in international politics has also result annoyed Brussels.

Zeman was the only European leader to support Trump when he decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the latter city as the capital of Israel. This was not a surprise, as Zeman has always shown his support for the Jewish state: on April 25 he celebrated Israel's Independence Day at his residency program . However, the Czech Republic has not moved its embassy to Jerusalem since the decision must be made by the government, and the government has not agreed to do so. On other Middle East issues, Zeman has given support to Russia, condemning the actions of the United States and its allies in Syria.

Zeman has also aligned himself with Beijing, opening the country to important Chinese investments, such as that of the energy company CEFC, whose headquarters in Shanghai were visited in March by several of his advisors. The opening to foreign investment has caused some concern in Brussels about the lack of control mechanisms to monitor the takeover of strategic sectors. In the framework of his promised "economic diplomacy" Zeman has defended China's project New Silk Road.

If Zeman and Babiš started from good relations, the last few months have led to several frictions. In the last weeks of his first term, Zeman put Babiš in charge of forming a government after his party became the most voted party in a very divided Parliament. Having just assumed the position as prime minister, Babiš offered Zeman the support of his ANO 2011 in the second round of the presidential election. Zeman has then made efforts to consolidate Babiš' position in Parliament. However, the latter's difficulties in having a stable majority have led to disagreements between the president and the prime minister over which parties should build the government majority. The open anti-Europeanism or anti-NATO stance of some of the potential partners made it difficult for Babiš, who in May formed the government again after having had to resign in January for lack of parliamentary support.

Events have shown that both Zeman and Babiš have strong personalities and that both seem determined to assert their political position, which may generate tension in the Czech Republic's institutional development . At the same time, both have shown an ease in changing speech according to what they think is the majority sentiment of Czechs, which has contributed to giving them a populist profile .

The days of the Velvet Revolution, when Zeman and Babiš shared a foxhole, are too far away, but it is worth remembering the words of Vaclav Havel, the main leader of that revolt and later president of the country: "Ideology is a deceptive way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of identity, dignity and morality, while at the same time making it easier for them to detach themselves from these principles".

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