Czech constitutional crisis: “Sorry jako”

Charged spats between government officials are rarely, if ever, looked upon from the sidelines with enthusiasm, and are more frequently perceived by the public as painful examples of childish behaviour and posturing that corrode the dignity usually expected to surround public office. Indeed, prolonged squabbles may be described as embarrassing for the country and, though “winners” and “losers” may be crowned, discourse as a whole often suffers from such intra-governmental fights, and the consequences for even the “victors” may prove unwanted.

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speaks to journalists at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic May 4, 2017. REUTERS/David W Cerny (Image courtesy Reuters)

The appointment of Ivan Pilný to the office of Finance Minister of the Czech government late last month marks the conclusion of one such case of posturing and political grandstanding between the Czech Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, and the former Finance Minister, Andrej Babiš; a battle that lasted just under a month. With the political crisis now over, it is appropriate to reflect back on the events and discern the lessons available to outside observers to better understand what awaits the coming months of Czech politics.

In early May, current Prime Minister and leader of the Social Democrats (ČSSD) Bohuslav Sobotka announced that he would inform President Miloš Zeman of the coalition government’s resignation by the end of the week. His reasons for doing so revolved around a dissatisfaction with explanations provided by Andrej Babiš pertaining to accusations of tax evasion and shady financial dealings. Properly speaking, it was well within Sobotka’s power as prime minister to dismiss Babiš; however, he cited an unwillingness to allow the already popular head of the ANO party to become a “martyr” through his dismissal. To Sobotka surprise, he found himself face with resistance from President Zeman who enjoys a favourable relationship with Babiš. In response to Sobotka’s ultimatum, Zeman hinted that he would treat the PM’s resignation on its own and not as a dissolution of government, leading to a bizarre encounter between the two at Prague Castle where Zeman received Sobotka and, standing before a collection of the press, thanked the PM for his work and wished him well in his future life. Sobotka was quick to correct the president that, in light of the uncertainty concerning precisely how the president would consider the resignation, he would not be resigning just yet, but rather had only come to the castle to discuss the developing crisis.

When it became clear that President Zeman would not be so complacent to let Sobotka remove Babiš by temporarily dissolving government, Sobotka changed tactics and requested the president to relieve Babiš of his duties, citing a constitutional obligation that mandates that the president “shall recall members of the government if the Prime Minister so proposes.” Criticisms were levied on all sides. Babiš claimed that the Sobotka’s posturing was nothing more than a dirty trick, President Zeman accused the PM of making a farce of the government by playing games and described his move to resign as cowardly, and Sobotka accused the president of ignoring the constitution. Meanwhile, growing public opposition mounted as sides were taken. Large protests were held in Prague calling on Babiš to leave his post in the government and on the president to resign. Babiš ultimately agreed to step down in late May and suggested ANO member and former Microsoft executive Ivan Pilný as a replacement. On May 24, Pilný was formally appointed by Zeman bringing the conflict to an ostensible end.

Lessons learned

Looking back on the events of last May, there are three main lessons to be learned. The first, is that President Zeman is not afraid to assert himself politically. This should not be very surprising given that, as a high-profile member of Czech politics, one would naturally expect the president to seek to assert some influence in political proceedings. Furthermore, the rift between Zeman and Sobotka as fueling and escalating the conflict over Babiš is hardly a new phenomenon. In 2014, Zeman strongly opposed Sobotka’s chairmanship of the ČSSD (and consequentially the position of prime minister), and even suggested Sobotka’s removal from office either via election or via “Kalashnikov”. Thus, it is not particularly surprising that the tension between the two flared up again in these most recent events. However, what this spat does show, is that the president’s struggle for influence will continue by his attempting to influence Czech parliamentary politics to the best of his ability.

Yet though assertive, Zeman is limited in his capacity to influence Czech politics. Consequentially, the second lesson to take away is that Zeman is, as amply demonstrated by May’s events, ultimately bound and limited by the Constitution. Sobotka’s initial plan to resign and reform the Czech government and avoid directly dismissing Babiš gave Zeman too much maneuverability to resist the PM’s plan. The president initially claimed that the decision of Sobotka to resign violated the coalition pact agreement that had been drawn up in 2013 between the parties in government. More significantly, he and his advisors found the Constitution sufficiently vague to leave open the possibility of only removing the prime minister upon the delivery of his resignation, and not recalling the entirety of government. When Sobotka changed tactics, a much more narrow set of clauses were invoked and it became much more difficult for Zeman to resist dismissing Babiš. Even then, he sought confirmation from the Constitutional Court on what precisely the Constitution mandated him to do in such a situation, assuring that he would “of course respect the decision.” Nevertheless, Zeman relented and relieved Babiš of his duties showing that, try as he might, the president is not above the Constitution.

However, the most significant take-away from the events last month is that playing political chicken does not work. Though opposition absolutely did build against Babiš (so much so that he was removed from office), it does not appear that he suffered to the same extent as other players. President Zeman’s approval ratings tanked following the crisis falling to 41% (marking the first time since 2015 that they lay below 50%). Support for the government also fell to a low 23% (compared to 40% the month before), and Sobotka personally took a significant hit with only 30% describing themselves as having confidence in the PM (compared to roughly 43% the previous month). In stark contrast, ANO (which Babiš still heads) has maintained the same 31.5% support that it held at the start of the crisis. Comparatively, the Sobotka-led ČSSD is now only the fourth most supported party in Czech government falling by 2 points in the month of May alone. Looking back on the events of May from this vantage point, it is clear that Sobotka’s efforts against Babiš completely backfired and lost him far more support than he expected. Babiš (and ANO) has sucessfully withstood the crisis and emerged nearly unscathed. The same, of course, cannot be said for Zeman who clearly found himself among the defeated at the tail end of this spat. Considering these shifts in popular support, the consequences for the immediate future promise to be interesting; or perhaps, not so much.

Looking forward

The fact of the matter is that Babiš is still a major player in Czech politics (especially as the leader of ANO) and, popular manifestations demanding his removal from his position in government notwithstanding, he remains a very popular political “outsider” who will likely become the next prime minister should present support hold. With parliamentary elections being held this coming October, Sobotka’s bungling of the dismissal of Babiš has come at an ill-timed moment with ANO surging with a 20-point lead. Zeman’s prospects for the coming presidential election in early 2018 may have faltered in light of this crisis with this stumble in support; however, early polling still shows him having a 10-point lead over other candidates. Regardless, it is still far too early to make serious predictions. Zeman still has ample time ahead of him to recover from this dip in support.

With the appointment of Pilný, this recent crisis is mercifully over. Though it appears clear that Babiš has emerged victorious, it does not seem apt to describe the result as a victory; even for Babiš. He has lost his position in government and with it some amount of moral standing. He may find a victory in October hollow to the extent that escalated and polarized tensions as a product of May’s events, and the associated erosion of trust in government institutions following the events, leave Czechs embarrassed at the behaviour of their elected officials and reluctant to enthusiastically support the “usual suspects” of established politics.

John Chrobak

John Chrobak

Policy Intern at InPRA
John Chrobak is a recent graduate of McGill University where he completed a BA in Political Science and Philosophy. His primary area of focus is Eurasian affairs and he is particularly interested in contemporary Russian politics. More specifically, he is interested in examining emerging trends in Eurasia by monitoring the development of domestic Russian politics and Russian foreign policy with her neighbours. He plans to continue his studies by pursuing an MA in international relations.
John Chrobak