The Czech Republic continues to find itself in a political crisis. Parliament has voted against one government but can't yet form another. Meanwhile, experts are concerned about the president's power trip.
The Czech Republic has been stuck in a deep crisis for almost two months now. And to top it off, technical problems emerged at the worst possible moment: on Wednesday (07.08.2013), the day on which a vote of confidence in the provisional cabinet led by Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok was due to take place, a storm crippled the electronic ballot machine in Prague's House of Representatives. The decisive parliamentary hearing came to a standstill before it could even start. What followed was a tedious procedure with pen and paper, heated debates, changes of heart and lots of delays, lasting altogether for eleven hot and humid hours.
But the result was obvious from the start: the right-of-center parties which made up the former government coalition had already agreed to vote against Rusnok's government of technocrats which mainly consists of political allies of President Milos Zeman and was created against the will of the parliamentary majority. One hundred of the 193 representatives attending the session voted against Rusnok.
Crisis of parliamentary democracy
At the last minute, three members of the assembly decided not to back their parties. That meant that, while the left-leaning provisional government was not confirmed in office, there was no majority for a continuation of the previous center-right coalition either. Parliament has now been left to pick up the pieces. What started as a government crisis has become a crisis of parliamentary democracy.
And President Zeman is not even thinking about calming the waters. He prefers to maneuver his way through gaps in the constitution. On the day of the ballot, Zeman appeared in parliament, in spite of health troubles, and firmly promoted his Rusnok government.
Intrigue and corruption
Political experts have long warned that Zeman intends to transform the Czech Republic from a parliamentary into a presidential democracy. "We are experiencing a complete dismantling of the constitutional state," said political scientist Vladmira Dvorakova. She deems Zeman's strategy as "exceptionally risky" and fears it will destabilize the country.
The crisis started with a fatal attraction. Jana Nagyova, office manager and mistress of then-prime minister Petr Necas, had attracted the attention of investigators. At the beginning of June, a large-scale raid of the seat of government led to allegations that seemed to come from a political thriller: Nagyova was accused of bribing representatives, working with mafia-like lobbyists and shadowing the then-wife of the prime minister with the help of the secret service. Necas was forced to resign.
The standard practice would have been for parliamentary president Miroslava Nemcova to have appointed a new cabinet. That, at least, was what the majority in parliament wanted, and the president should have gone along with that. But the left-wing populist Zeman, who describes constitutional conventions as "idiotic," appointed his own government led by Rusnok, a former economist. As the first directly elected president of his country, Zeman said he could allow himself more powers than his predecessors.
Czech society, however, is deeply split over the president's solo performance. The Necas government had been suffering from rock bottom poll figures for months due to its unpopular austerity policy. The cabinet seemed to be stumbling from one scandal to the next and Zeman won the presidential election partly as a protest against Necas and his team.
In a poll for Czech television, the opinion research institute STEM/MARK found that 65 percent of Czechs would support a vote of confidence in Rusnok - 34 percent would not. However, criticism of the provisional cabinet has become louder after Rusnok's ministers pushed through important personnel decisions in their own departments and in public companies before parliament had even had a chance to vote on the new administration.
And to add more fuel to the fire, right before the vote of confidence, in an interview with Austria's "Kleine Zeitung," former foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg compared the way in which Zeman was treating the constitution with the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.
Negotiations about new elections
In his speech to parliament, Zeman said he would let Rusnok govern even if he lost the vote of confidence. As long as the Nagyova affair had not been completely uncovered, he said, he would find it impossible to hand power to the center-right again. After all, another cabinet member could well find himself under investigation. According to the constitution, Zeman must "immediately" announce a new head of government. However, the constitution gives no concrete deadline for a second attempt.
It might all turn out differently anyway. After the turbulence of the debate's last few minutes, Schwarzenberg's TOP 09, the main party in the Necas government, wants to dissolve parliament as soon as possible. The negotiations have already begun. New elections in the fall are therefore becoming more and more likely.