Czechs protest against president's alliance with billionaire minister

Czechs protest against president's alliance with billionaire minister
President Milos Zeman has refused to sack Finance Minister Andrej Babis.
By bne IntelliNews May 11, 2017

An estimated 30,000 demonstrated in Prague on May 10 against the apparent efforts of President Milos Zeman and Finance Minister Andrej Babis to use the country’s coalition crisis to consolidate their power.

Protesters are angry that the populist head of state and the leader of the ‘centrist-populist’ Ano party appear to be working in tandem and ignoring the constitution to ensure that Babis will be the next prime minister and Zeman will be re-elected president.

Having pulled an offer early in the month to make the government resign as Zeman sought to blindside him, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka of the coalition leading Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) is now pushing to sack Babis, something the president has so far refused to do. The PM’s machinations are a bid to revive his party’s flagging support ahead of elections that are currently scheduled for October.

The wily Zeman and Babis are still likely to occupy the top jobs in the country following the parliamentary and presidential elections over the next eight months. However, the protests across the country on May 10 suggest they may need to change tactics. Zeman risks sparking a full-blown constitutional crisis should he continue to refuse to sack Babis.

While the crowds in Prague were by far the biggest, demonstrations were held in major cities across the country. Referencing accusations that Zeman and Babis are hijacking democracy, protestors on Prague’s Wenceslas Square jangled their keys, as they famously did in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution that saw the end of the communist regime.

Opposition is also rising in parliament. All the coalition parties insist that they are against snap elections, but the ongoing tussle risks a slide in that direction.

A sizable section of the CSSD-controlled Senate has said it will launch a lawsuit against the president should he refuse to dismiss Babis, as most opinion suggests he is duty bound to do under the constitution since Sobotka requested the move on May 5. The president says firing the finance minister would break the coalition agreement between the CSSD, Ano and the junior partner KDU-CSL.

Zeman has sought to delay any decision on the crisis until he returns from a planned week-long trip to China, which is due to start on May 11. However, several CSSD ministers have now announced they will not travel with the president, and senior figures in the party appear to be firming up support for the PM’s stance.

The KDU-CSL has now called on Zeman to cancel the trip, and for the president to act according to the constitution. KDU-CSL leader and Deputy Prime Minsiter Pavel Belobradek made clear as he addressed crowds in Liberec, where Zeman met with party leaders on May 10, that his stance has shifted since last week, when he had suggested he could fill the PM’s chair.

“The prime minister filed a motion for dismissal of Mr Babis and the president should be held according to the constitution,” he said, according to Hospodarske Noviny. “What are they afraid of, Mr Babis and Mr Zeman?”

Meanwhile, at the call of opposition parties, parliament held a special session regarding tapes suggesting Babis sought to organise coverage in the papers he owns of leaked police files on political rivals to offer him the best advantage in the next election. Sobotka claims he wants to fire Babis due to financial improprieties; the tapes began to emerge the day after the PM offered his resignation.

While the conventional wisdom remains that Babis remains set for the PM’s chair following the next election – Ano enjoying 30% or more of voter support for some time in the polls, compared with the CSSD’s 14% – the protest could inject some fresh life into the race. Still, Babis and Zeman remain the second and first most popular political figures in the country, respectively.

Further than that, their support is centred outside the major cities. Adopting tactics followed by other populists around the globe, Zeman even consciously baits the capital to raise his popularity across the rest of the country.

“Holding a solid double-digit lead against the CSSD, Ano’s victory in the October general polls remains our base case scenario,” says Andrius Tursa at Teneo Intelligence. “However, a heated political campaign during the remaining five months could still tilt popular support to either side. Considering the ongoing crisis, the prospects of continued cooperation between the CSSD and ANO after the October polls are becoming increasingly improbable.”

Protest organisers have called for another rally outside Prague Castle, the seat of the president, on May 11.