The Unbearable Darkness of Czech Politics

The former prime minister's mistress used government resources to spy on his wife, but that's only the start of the problem.

Czech President Milos Zeman wipes his face after announcing the replacement of former prime minister Petr Necas, who resigned in a bribery and spying scandal. (Petr Josek/Reuters)

The Czech Republic is already mired in its longest-ever recession, and now, the central European nation is being further rattled by a political crisis. Last week, its new prime minister lost a confidence vote and has resigned -- just six weeks after he was appointed.

For a while after the fall of communism in 1989 and the accession of Central Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004, it seemed these nations were flourishing with the help of democratic principles and a market economy. But now, events in the Czech Republic reveal creeping retrograde changes in these countries' governments.

What happened to the Czech government?

On August 8, the Czech Parliament failed to support a new technocratic government appointed by its first democratically elected president, Milos Zeman. In the 200-member parliament, the vote of confidence came down to 93 in favor and 100 against. The drama goes back to June 17, when former prime minister Petr Necas stepped down following the unveiling of a major corruption scandal involving members of his party and government. In the largest raid in Czech history, the police charged politicians for illegally awarding government contracts. One of those arrested was Necas's top aide and mistress, who used government surveillance resources to spy on Necas's wife. This leaves the head of state, President Zeman, in charge of approving the head of government, the prime minister, who then forms a government out of the popularly elected members of Parliament. This separation of power is characteristic of a parliamentary government and distinct from the American presidential system, in which the two offices--head of state and head of government--are combined in the office of the president.

What is preventing the government from functioning?

The situation boils down to tensions between the Czech parties the Civic Forum (ODS) on the right and the Social Democrats (CSSD) on the left. Parliament still retains a majority center-right coalition that has hung on since May 2010 despite previous corruption charges. However, in early 2013, Czechs elected former CSSD Milos Zeman as president over moderate Karel Schwarzenberg. Now the parliament and the president find themselves at odds. To end the stalemate, Zeman could have accepted the proposal for a new prime minister from the coalition or called for new elections. Instead, Zeman chose to appoint a technocratic government, cementing the standoff rather than solving it.

So what's the problem? Europe's technocratic solution seems pretty common. Yet unusual here is the closeness of the unelected officials to Zeman. And although Parliament decisively vetoed the unelected government, its decision means surprisingly little to Zeman's cohort. Parliament is still dependent on the president to appoint or approve a prime minister, and Zeman has declared that he will not appoint the head of another new government until the scandal involving Necas's aide has been resolved.

What does this say about democracy in Central Eastern Europe?

The Czech Republic was once heralded as having made the most stable transition to a democratic government in the post-1989 period. Yet like some of its post-communist fellows, its politicians seem to have backpedaled of late. These leaders have taken advantage of a parliamentary system's dependence on compromise. Rather than "checking and balancing" each other, a parliamentary executive and legislative are fused. Parliament can veto a presidentially appointed head of government, but then it cannot form a government. The president can appoint an unapproved prime minister, but then he cannot initiate laws. Luckily for Zeman, the Czech constitution favors the position of the president over Parliament--a legacy from the early post-communist governments of former president Vaclav Klaus. The president is not required to immediately appoint a new government after a parliamentary veto and his unapproved one can carry out executive duties. So, despite the veto, Zeman's technocratic government appears here to stay.

Central and Eastern European countries have made great strides toward honest, democratic government since 1989, largely thanks to the EU's accession policies. If the Czech government is flexing its executive muscle with an apparent nod to its eastern neighbors, it may jeopardize the EU's reputation as a force for democratic transformation.

This post is part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.