Dariusz Kałan is Research Fellow and Central Europe analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).
A political earthquake in the Czech Republic started almost three weeks ago just after Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ cabinet met. After a nationwide raid on ministries and company offices, police detained seven people, including senior deputies of the ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the prime minister’s chief of staff, and military intelligence service members. All of them were charged with accepting a bribe. Afterwards - like in a classic thriller - the action worked to a climax.
Nečas soon resigned and retired from politics, though he is still struggling with information that almost every day emerges about the role he may have played in the scandal. But a good thriller needs not only a bad guys. There is a place for good sheriffs too.
The clear desire to wear the badge was expressed recently by the country’s president, Miloš Zeman. He rejected the candidate of the compromised centre-right coalition for new prime minister and appointed economist and his former minister of finance, Jiří Rusnok, as head of a caretaker cabinet.
One could get the impression, on hearing about Zeman’s nomination for a technical administration, that he is willing to bring the country back from long-lasting political chaos. Nothing could be further from the truth however.
In fact, there are at least three motives that now drive the president. All, though, are focused on one aim: strengthening his own position in the country.
First, Zeman has recently scored a lot of shameful mishaps. By blocking a gay activist from a well-deserved university professorship, he presented himself as a biassed and arrogant greybeard. At least this did not diminish his personal dignity. After the next scandal – when he was reportedly drunk at an official ceremony – he began not to be taken seriously. As a result people tended to forget that he was the head of state, and his manoeuvre with Rusnok is intended to remind them of the fact.
Second, Rusnok will find serious difficulties in winning a vote of confidence in parliament. During the coming months, his cabinet will only be able to function based on the good will of his political patron, Zeman, who will preserve de facto power – far exceeding his constitutional competences – in the country. This has little to do with a political stability, therefore, but rather with increasing the spheres of influence of the president and his close circle over Czech politics and the economy.
Third, if Rusnok fails or becomes too independent, early elections will be the next scenario considered by Zeman. One could expect this to favour the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) which leads all polls with around 30% support. Zeman, indeed, was a founder of ČSSD, but his relations with the current leadership is quite turbulent. In fact, if the conservatives continue to lose more blood, as is quite likely during the regular 2014 elections, ČSSD would gain a Fidesz-like majority in the parliament. This would completely marginalise the president’s role. Zeman thus may be pushing for elections in autumn to keep control of the less-stable government whose success would still to a large degree depend on dialogue with the president.
Moreover, it is still probable that Zeman’s small party, modestly named after himself – the Party of Civic Rights-Zemanovci – will cross the threshold for parliament. According to recent polls, it may receive 6-7%, and thus become a junior coalition partner with the ČSSD.
All of these factors gel with rumours in Prague that Zeman wants to increase his constitutional prerogatives. It is a reasonable assumption given that he is the very first president elected by the people, rather than the parliament. He thus has a strong mandate to exercise his relatively weak powers. So, political chaos represents a good opportunity for a power grab. In fact, as previously demonstrated by presidents Havel and Klaus, in the Czech Republic weakening governments offer the chance for the president to rise.
The last thing the country probably needs now is a debate on politicians’ ambitions. True, Zeman may use the next few months to go on a new offensive to increase some of his powers. However, since the Czechs are among the most disillusioned societies in Europe in terms of their mistrust of their country's elite, Zeman’s protection of his own interests may sooner or later backfire.
The temptation to use the crisis for his own, temporary advantage seems to be more enticing.
I, Claudius the eponymous Roman Emperor of Robert Graves' iconic novel, resembled Zeman in being perceived as sympathetic and jovial character, and too error prone and dissolute to represent a threat to other ambitious players. But when the right occasion appeared, he became a genuinely ruthless policymaker.
His enemies forget that Zeman is a good old-fashioned dinosaur from the 1990s, a period when Czech politics was conducted in backrooms, where the permanent message was this: the strongest always wins.