New Czech president puts politicians and press on edge

By bne IntelliNews March 11, 2013

bne -

The Czech Republic's first ever directly-elected president was sworn in on March 8. In his inaugural speech, President Milos Zeman pledged to unite the country and end its petty ongoing political squabbles, and push to fight corruption. He then threatened the media.

Being sworn in at Prague Castle as he takes over from his old adversary and sometime supporter, Vaclav Klaus, Zeman promised he would be a unifier for the country's politicians - who have a habit of falling out with one another to the point of destabilizing government on a regular basis. The current coalition faced several crises in 2012 that threatened to unseat it, and struggles on with the barest of majorities.

However, Zeman's pledge to be "president of all citizens," and to act as a mediator on the political scene "but in no way a judge because that is not a proper role for the president," is unlikely to quell worries in the parliament's lower house.

While he said that "I offer the presidential office to be a place for dialogue," according to AP, the leaders of all the country's main political parties are more likely to remember his vow during the campaign that he plans to regularly attend cabinet meetings and be involved in the day-to-day governing of the country, despite the presidential role being mostly ceremonial.

The ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Top 09, which have implemented a harsh austerity programme over the past three years or so, will hardly welcome any interference from a left-leaning populist who has called for early elections several times since the vote in January. Zeman eventually beat Top 09 founder and current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round of an election in which the victor cast a fair bit of mud at his rival.

Even resisting those calls, the government is very likely to fall at the next election set for 2014. As such, the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) - which look a shoe-in to form the next government - will be even more nervous. While Zeman led the party as PM between 1998-2002, he fell out with the current leadership several years ago. His rise to president is likely to cause strains within the party, particularly should it come to power.

Threats to the corrupt and the press

Meanwhile, Zeman's promise to clamp down on corruption will also be tough to take for some. "One of the biggest dangers we are facing are godfather-like mafias that reside on the body of Czech society," the new president said. "They suck blood out of this body and don't return any added value."

"The best defence against mafia business is full declaration of assets and incomes" he suggested, according to Dow Jones, adding that he will urge both houses of parliament to enact legislation requiring public servants to fully declare the amount and origin of their assets.

However, suspicion remains over Zeman's closely-held ties to Russian business interests and campaign funds, while the "opposition agreement" that his minority government operated in the late 1990s when he was PM - essentially sharing power with Klaus' ODS - encouraged public-sector corruption to flourish, accuse many critics.

A more widely believed claim from the left-leaning Zeman was his pledge to fight the rise of neo-Nazis, which he lamented can be found "in all the cities and towns" of the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, as far as the gathered politicians were concerned, the most popular part of his speech was when he turned his wrath on the media, promising to target those "that deal with brainwashing, media manipulation, manipulating the public opinion. (Those) whose representatives have little knowledge but a huge self-confidence. People who write about everything and understand nothing."

The remark was the first of his inauguration speech to elicit strong applause from the hundreds of lawmakers and public servants present, according to Dow Jones. Schwarzenberg, who enjoyed huge media support during the presidential campaign, was unlikely to be one of those. And it was that strong preference shown by the Czech press for his rival that clearly riles Zeman, who has battled the media throughout his political career.

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