The Czech Republic is a small land-locked country and its politics and politicians are usually non-significant in the grand scheme of world and even EU politics. Moreover, the population speaks a language few people outside Czechia and Slovakia understand. That’s why, generally, reporting about Czech politics is quite wrong. (One hopes reporting about other countries where one doesn’t have the informational advantage is better. Naïve maybe, but there we go.)
I’m writing this article from the point of view of a Czech libertarian. It’s meant for foreigners, not necessarily libertarians, to get a better grasp of Czech politics than what they can get from their usual sources of information.
I’ll start with the Head of State.
The current President is Miloš Zeman. A former member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the politician who – almost entirely by himself – made the Social Democrats (ČSSD) a force to be reckoned with and ultimately led them to a victory in the 1998 House1 election and was the Prime Minister for a full term (which is quite a feat in Czech politics).
In the 1990s, he was known for his great oratory skills and for a no-holds-barred approach to his public speeches; he would never shy away from dirty language or outright threats2. It was his government that joined NATO in 1999 and did most of the work on aligning Czech law with EU law in the so-called “legislative typhoon.”
He announced in advance he would resign from politics after the 2002 election and so he did, even though his party won again. His retreat from politics wouldn’t last too long as he returned to run for president in January 2003.
Under the Constitution in force back in 2003, it was the Parliament that elected the president. Zeman was humiliated, as not even the full caucus of his Social Democrats would support him. It was his arch-rival from the 1990s Václav Klaus who became president.
At this moment, he retreated from the normal political business but was still an influential figure in his party. He wrote two books and constantly criticized his successors at the helm of the party and of the government.
In 2010, he ran for the House again, this time with a new outfit, the Party of Citizens Rights – Zemanites (yes, that was really the name). The party was financed by Lukoil and it almost got elected, its 4.33% was just shy of the 5% hurdle. It also meant that the Social Democrats found themselves 4.33% short on votes and unable to form a government.
In 2013, he ran for president again, this time in a popular vote. After a nasty (from multiple sides) campaign and after running a campaign featuring some pretty spooky figures, he won both the first round and the run-off and became president when Václav Klaus’s second term expired.
Being constitutionally very limited in powers, his politics resorted to nasty attacks on politicians at home and abroad which very quickly led to cold relations between the President’s office and virtually any other head of state, with the exceptions of Russia and China.
His health also deteriorated very quickly, making him an inactive president whose solo activities are basically saying vicious things in the media and being vindictive to politicians. His attempted coup to overthrow the duly elected leader of his former party (the Social Democrats) just after the 2013 House election is a prime example.
His awareness of the fact that he is smart and well-read and of the fact that his aides are not up to his level led him to believe he should never check if his memory serves him well. It led to famous blunders like the one where he claimed Queen Elisabeth II reigned during World War II. It’s therefore sometimes difficult to say which of his remarks are just wrong and which of them are outright vicious lies. But the fact that he never apologizes and corrects himself shows his personality.
As he became isolated abroad, so too, was he isolated at home. His domestic alliances perhaps help to shed a better light on his foreign alliances. He said categorically that Andrej Babiš (see below) could never be appointed minister by him. But Babiš and Zeman quickly realized they’re both from the same cloth. Empty political vessels of populism, spineless people with no regard for political or societal norms.
Having nowhere else to go, it was natural for Zeman to find an ally in Mr. Babiš. And that’s how their mésalliance was born. They would prop each other up every step of the way until Babiš was elected Prime Minister and Zeman reelected president. We don’t quite know how this will end yet.
I think the foreign relations are similar in a way. Isolating himself from the polite society by being as obnoxious and as nasty as possible, he got nowhere else to go but Russia and China. This was, of course, helped by the fact that his spooky aides have various business dealings with Russian and Chinese oligarchs.
It is surely concerning, but do I think Zeman is directed from Kremlin? No. Usually, it’s just Zeman being Zeman, pissing off everybody he can – it’s his greatest joy in life. There might come a day when he will think he should piss off Putin or Xi, you never know.
The main thing to remember is that the foreign policy of the Czech Republic is set by the government and because of Zeman’s poor health, he doesn’t go around the world causing mischief. Our allies in the EU and NATO seem to understand they should disregard him.
Far more worrying is his domestic alliance.
The current government is led by Andrej Babiš, a son of a Communist apparatchik and a member of the Communist party himself. He was also an StB confidante (StB is the Czechoslovak version of the Stasi), which is apparent from his past and which he admitted to on national television. He then changed his mind and for some strange reason wants the ECHR to overrule Slovak courts that confirmed this fact which is obvious to any sentient being.
After the revolution, he successfully privatized some agricultural monopolies through some shady dealings we are still not entirely privy to (he claims his schoolmates from Switzerland loaned him the necessary cash). His business benefits from various subsidies and laws mandating agricultural products be mixed with gasoline.
He boasted in national media that it was him who called the House to session on the evening of the 2010 election to ram through a piece of legislation on biofuels that was vetoed by President Klaus and could not be voted on again in the new term after the election. Babiš claims he personally lobbied the parties to vote for the bill. We don’t know whether any money was involved.
But bringing the Parliament to heel from behind the curtains wasn’t enough for Andrej Babiš. Before the new term was over, he founded a political party with him as the leader and with him as the only person who has any input into its manifesto3, financing or personal decisions.
On his way up the opinion polls and into the parliament, he was cheer led by the Zeitgeist made up by the media where every political action was reported as a corrupt or a self-serving deal. Instead of focusing on substance, the media was pre-occupied with personal connections, why this representative votes for it, why this one votes against, the main focus of the reporting was definitely not on the substance or on the ideological battle.
In the summer of 2012, the police raided the government’s main office, arrested the PM’s chief of staff, three former representatives and several other figures. What the then-PM called a “police colonels’ coup d’état” meant the downfall of the government and cleared the way for Mr. Babiš who would “drain the corrupt swamp.” After six years and running, the case has so far resulted in no convictions.
Babiš also bought two Czech broadsheets with the largest circulation. Not to profit from them financially, but to influence what they write. There are media analyses confirming this – and there are tapes, too.
So, here we have a politician who is as corrupt as can be, hates the press, cannot speak a paragraph of coherent thoughts4, has zero respect for the rule of law or parliamentary procedures but claims he will get rid of corruption, put forward sensible policies, and will “run the state like a business”. Sounds familiar?
The difference, though, between Andrej Babiš and Donald Trump is that Mr. Babiš has excellent hiring skills and his wishes actually do materialize in concrete legislation. Which is terrible for the state of freedom and the rule of law in the Czech Republic.
What’s probably quite (maybe absolutely) unique in the history of world politics is that he is currently being prosecuted by the police for subsidy fraud (and the House lifted his immunity) and 1) he was still appointed Prime Minister, 2) he has a coalition government with a confidence in the House, 3) although he defrauded the EU, there is zero pressure from the EU that a guy like this shouldn’t probably be Prime Minister.
Maybe he can find his way around it in court but if you read the OLAF report, it’s clear as day that his application for EU subsidies was fraudulent.
Of course, he doesn’t like being prosecuted. He doesn’t like his family (who were shareholders in the fraudulent scheme) being prosecuted. He has the full support of his parliamentary party (who are mindless zombies anyway), the President, and a wavering support of other parties like the Social Democrats and Communists to possibly change the Criminal Procedure Law and other things. He hasn’t done many things of significance yet but his government only gained the confidence of the House and found a working majority in June and July 2018; we will have to wait and see.
His record from the previous government where he was the vice-PM but widely regarded as the de facto PM as the real Prime Minister was extremely weak suggests he doesn’t give a thought to civil liberties, will spy on people for tax matters as little as a few korunas and will impose draconian fines. He will punish his business opponents with any tool the law can give him.
What’s in politics for him? His net worth doubled during the last House term. But he is already so wealthy (almost 4 billion USD, wealthier than Donald Trump), can this really be the motivating factor? With people like these, I think the main motivation is the Frank Underwood style of doing politics – the sheer joy of being able to use and abuse people, spy on them, subjugate them. Not the power to enact policy, the power itself.
Can he be limited?
House of Representatives
Having this man in their previous government and yielding to him in every regard wasn’t enough for the Social Democrats. They agreed to join a government where he – now prosecuted for a felony – is the Prime Minister. They shall live in infamy forever from this moment on. Because their vote collapsed in the last election, their useful idiocy to benefit Mr. Babiš is very limited in terms of parliamentary majority. That’s why he has to rely on other parties:
Communists. For the first time in post- Communist history, the Czech Republic has a government that was propped up by Communist “yes” votes in the confidence motion. Which is only fitting for a government led by their former cadre.
Freedom and Direct Democracy Party. Another party made up by mindless zombies led by a businessman (this time a legit one) whose selling points are being anti-immigration and pro-direct democracy. It has no connection to the European Parliament’s faction of the same name, it is aligned with Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedom. It is the most anti-immigration party and it is led by a Tokyo-born man with a Japanese father, this is the country of the Good Soldier Švejk after all.
Pirate Party. Although notionally critical of Mr. Babiš, their inexperience with parliamentary business and their authoritarian instincts have resulted, on several occasions, in helping Mr. Babiš with what he wanted without even getting them anything in return.
Other parties, including the People’s Party that joined the government with Social Democrats and Mr. Babiš last term, so far remain steadfastly opposed to this government, even if they sometimes support single pieces of legislation.
By terrible constitutional design, the Czech Senate is all but irrelevant for normal bills. It can amend the bills or veto them but the House can override all amendments and vetoes with a simple majority of 101 votes out of 200, which is the number of votes you usually need to survive the confidence motion anyway.
The Senate no longer even elects the president and now also cannot impeach a president without the House’s consent. However, the President can only be impeached for treason and can be removed from office by the Constitutional Court – so this hope is even more distant in Czech politics than in America.
For all that it’s worth, the Senate can cause some minor headaches for the government because Mr. Babiš’s party has so far been unable to elect any meaningful number of senators. If the Senate amends the bills in smart ways, it’s easier for the government in the House to just accept the Senate’s version than to try to pass its version again.
The confirmation battles for the Czech Constitutional Court are nothing like in the US. Unless a former representative or a senator is nominated, we don’t even know the nominee’s favorite party. It sometimes blocks the stupidest parts of some legislation but more often than not it rubberstamps domestic legislation and plainly unconstitutional international treaties.
In another historically unique moment, the Czech Constitutional Court declared a constitutional amendment unconstitutional and cancelled a general election just weeks before it was supposed to take place.
To think these fifteen justices are what separates us now from a tyranny is not a pleasant thought. On the other hand, it seems the justices have a real disdain for the current President and the current Prime Minister has no people on the Court.
Luckily, no-one has tried Polish or Hungarian shenanigans yet. When they do, we might be pleasantly surprised after all.
Czech National Bank
The last two members of the Board of Governors appointed by President Klaus will have their terms expired in November. It will be an all-Zeman board from then on, which means a board less committed to keep the Czech koruna, to say the least. Luckily, the Czech population is strongly opposed to the adoption of the Euro. So much, so that only one of the parties wants the Euro introduced and it barely got into the Parliament this term.
The Czech Republic has 13 administrative regions and the capital city (which is for the purposes of the law something like a region but also something like a city). They don’t have many powers except for directing where EU subsidies should flow and are thus infested with corruption. They have virtually zero power or leverage against the government.
For towns and cities, almost the same applies but some of the cities seem intent on passing stupid regulations, Prague being the unfortunate bad example in this. Horrendously bad zoning regulations meant that the rents sky-rocketed in Prague during the last term, public drinking laws and curfew laws make it impossible to have a beer after 10pm and have a cigarette simultaneously (you cannot have a cigarette inside, you cannot have a beer outside), bad investment decisions congest the roads and so on. But these are mostly harmless, if annoying matters.
Having both the President and the Prime Minister total kooks opposed to liberal democracy is pretty bad. Having them in such an institutional arrangement where they are irremovable from office is worse still. The trend is very bad, not good at all.
But is it as bad as in Hungary or Poland? No. And we are hopefully nowhere near that. Babiš has nowhere near that amount of support to pull this through. And I don’t think he can gain it. One of the reasons why, I think, that being the country of the Good Soldier Švejk, Czechs don’t take themselves (or anything) so seriously. Catholics are laughed at, Europhiles are laughed at, nationalists are laughed at, socialists are laughed at, libertarians are laughed at.
For the time being, you can’t build a personality cult in the Czech Republic. If the Constitution won’t protect us from tyranny, maybe our spirit will.
“Are you out of your mind? There’s people here!” yells the good soldier Švejk towards the bombs as they are landing. With any luck, the Švejks in the rest of us will yell this remark at swaggering despots trying to take us further down the road to serfdom.
I can, upon request, provide references to things mentioned in this article but they will be in Czech.
1 Throughout this article, I’m using American terminology where applicable. The correct name of the lower chamber of the Parliament, however, is the Chamber of Deputies.
2 He regularly said who he would like to „put into a jumpsuit“ (literally „sweatpants“ in Czech), much like „lock her up.“
3 Calling it a manifesto is a bit charitable, however. The party’s name is „Yes“ in Czech and it will have any policy it deems popular.
4 Also funny that he can’t even speak proper Czech. Even after decades in the Czech Republic, he cannot bring himself to know the basics of Czech (instead of Slovak) declension. He’s also probably the only person in history who regularly says half a word in Czech and the other half in Slovak.