A Czech lesson for direct-election republicans

Many readers will remember the 1999 referendum on an Australian republic, in which Malcolm Turnbull and the Australian Republican Movement told us that indirect election of a president was the way to go, because a directly-elected president would claim a popular mandate in their own right and start interfering in politics, being unwilling to be just a neutral figurehead.

Voters were unconvinced, and it’s generally felt that public preference for directly electing the head of state was a key factor in the referendum’s defeat. And as I’ve pointed out before, some democracies, such as Ireland, seem to combine a Westminster system perfectly well with a directly-elected president.

But the Turnbull argument certainly looks more credible in light of recent events in the Czech Republic.

Czechs switched to direct election following discontent with the (indirect) election of Václav Klaus to a second term in 2008. Last year, the first direct election resulted in a second-round victory to former Social Democrat Miloš Zeman. And ever since, Zeman has been a troublesome influence on the Czech political system.

After the fall of the centre-right Czech government last June (in a particularly memorable sex-and-espionage scandal), Zeman tried to avoid early elections by appointing a supposedly technocratic government led by his own ally, Jiri Rusnok. Rusnok, however, failed to win parliamentary approval (although he is still in office in a caretaker capacity), so elections were duly held in October.

The Social Democrats emerged as the largest party in the new parliament, but before commissioning them to try to form a governing coalition, Zeman tried to engineer a party coup against leader Bohuslav Sobotka. That failed, and negotiations eventually produced, just before Christmas, an in-principle agreement for a three-party coalition government between the Social Democrats, the new centrist party ANO, and the Christian Democrats.

This week, the three parties officially announced the deal: Sobotka is to be prime minister and the Social Democrats are to have eight of the 17 seats in cabinet, with ANO six and the Christian Democrats three. Between them, the three parties have a reasonably comfortable majority in parliament, holding 111 seats against 89 for the four opposition parties.

But Zeman’s capacity for troublemaking is by no means exhausted. There have been repeated concerns that he would object to specific ministerial appointments – ANO leader Andrej Babiš is particularly controversial because he was once listed as an informer for the former Communist government. Then yesterday it was reported that Zeman is also insisting on the passage of an EU-required civil service law before the government is sworn in, which “raises the possibility of further weeks of delay”.

It’s not as if the new government won’t have enough problems of its own, even without worrying about the president. The Social Democrats are pledged to go easy on austerity measures, but ANO (which is to get the finance ministry) is much more a low-tax, pro-business outfit. There’s also a possible conflict with the Christian Democrats over a law on restitution of church property.

But in a Westminster system, it’s fundamental that a government with the confidence of parliament shouldn’t have to worry about political disagreements with the head of state. The fact that Zeman appears not to accept that principle might make some Czechs start to think that Malcolm Turnbull was right after all.


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