Why the Road to Ousting the Czech Republic’s Premier Is Bumpy
(Bloomberg) -- A surprise election result and a president sidelined in hospital with chronic health problems have combined to make the formation of the Czech Republic’s next government particularly complex and hard to predict. President Milos Zeman’s closest political ally, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, unexpectedly lost the Oct. 8-9 vote by a razor-thin margin to the conservative opposition alliance Spolu, which has vowed to oust Babis from power. Petr Fiala, the lead negotiator of the opposition, said he expects to sign a future coalition agreement with the other four parties by Nov. 8. But that depends on Zeman -- and his health. He has vowed to give Babis multiple chances to form a government and, even though the opposition holds a majority in parliament, he may choose to go with his ally or at least drag out the process.
1. What would Zeman normally do to shape the government?
The president’s role is to set things in motion. He has the right to name the prime minister, and there’s no deadline for that. Once the new premier is named, he or she has a month to win a confidence motion in parliament, and if that fails, Zeman has a second pick. Again, there is no deadline, and he may prolong the process for months, as he’s done in the past. The latest example was in 2018, when he kept Babis’s first cabinet in office for half a year after losing a confidence vote. Even though Babis’s party is still the biggest single force in the legislature, power now rests with anti-Babis groups holding the majority in the new parliament. They can paralyze any government they aren’t part of, and they appear determined to oust the billionaire leader who has dominated the country’s politics for seven years.
2. What happens if Zeman can’t perform his functions?
There are clear rules for splitting powers between the prime minister and the speaker of the lower house of parliament. The main post-election function, naming the premier-designate and cabinet, would go to the speaker of the lower house, who hasn’t been chosen yet, but the camp vying to replace Babis says the post belongs to them. The upper and lower houses of parliament could also pass a motion declaring the president unfit to perform his duties, but that might be legally tricky if the reason is health problems. The president’s chief doctor said on Oct. 10 that he was in an intensive care ward and the hospital said a day later that he was in stable condition, without giving any further details. Zeman, who is 77, suffers from diabetes and neuropathy and uses a wheelchair.
3. Does Babis still have a shot at staying in power?
Technically yes, at least for some time. His party has said it won’t block the transfer of power and can see itself in the opposition. But he is keeping his options open and will wait for the president to decide. In the meantime, he stays in office until a new government is appointed. The president could nominate him, as he has said he will do, and then keep him in the post indefinitely even if Babis loses a confidence vote. That would probably lead to political paralysis because of the difficulties in pushing through laws against a united majority in the legislature. Activist groups have already said they would organize civic protests if Zeman refuses to allow the transfer of power.
4. Does the opposition have the support to form a government?
It does. The anti-Babis alliance, consisting of five parties, has 108 of the 200 seats in the lower house and has signed an agreement that they participate in a new government only with each other. If they do take over, key for their survival will be their ability to overcome differences on issues such as closer integration with the EU through euro adoption and the bloc’s climate goals.
5. How could this influence economic policy and debt?
The immediate impact should be limited, not least because the actual transfer of executive power may take weeks or months. In the longer run, the main change should be a more conservative approach to public finances. The alliance quickly announced it wants to reverse Babis’s debt-funded spending spree and cut deficits. They can get a first crack at it with next year’s budget draft, for which Babis’s cabinet is projecting a shortfall similar to that of the past two years, even as the state has phased out most Covid-19 programs put in place to protect businesses and jobs.
6. Might it affect the country’s relations with Russia and China?
Only to some extent. There shouldn’t be much of a change in ties with Russia, which are already at the lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Prague has expelled most of Moscow’s diplomats after accusing Russian agents of being responsible for a massive explosion at an ammunition warehouse that killed two people in 2014, which the Kremlin rejected as absurd. Relations with China are more complex, but the groups waiting to take power may be more vocal in their support for Taiwan and criticism of Beijing’s human rights record.
7. Does it have wider implications for the European Union?
There could be both a positive impact and areas of friction. A change in government should remove long-lasting tension between Babis and the EU’s executive arm over conflicts of interest related to control of his chemical, farming and media empire. All members of the alliance wishing to take power are staunch supporters of strong ties with the West, but their government could also add fuel to tensions within the EU given the euro-skeptic views of the largest party, the Civic Democrats. It’s a member of the same conservative group in the European Parliament as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party. The Civic Democrats oppose adopting the euro and want to rein in the EU’s green goals, and some of its officials have expressed support for Hungary in battles with the bloc over the rule of law and LGBTQ rights.
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