The introduction of a semi-presidential system

The Prague Castle is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Picture: Jorge Royan, original: Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 3.0

August 9, 2013
Štěpán Drahokoupil
Both the fall of the government of Petr Nečas in June of this year and the appointment of Jiří Rusnok as prime minister against the will of most of the political parties in the Czech lower house have re-opened the question of how the institutions in the Czech political system actually function. A few months after Miloš Zeman first took office as president, we are now seeing the logical outcome of introducing a semi-presidential system. The outcome of the current clash between the president and the Czech Parliament (in both houses) could significantly influence the future form of the relationships between the government, the parliament, and the president.

The strong presidential tradition and introduction of direct elections

From the breakup of Czechoslovakia until today, the Czech political system has been shaped as a parliamentary democracy, even though the Constitution does not explicitly call it that. The government is responsible to the lower chamber of the Parliament, and until 2013, both chambers elected the head of state at a joint session. Despite holding such an indirect mandate, the Czech president has never been a mere figurehead and has always played an important role in Czech politics. We see this tradition of strong presidents starting with the first Czechoslovak President T. G. Masaryk, his successor Edvard Beneš, and continuing with the communist presidents - the office of president was preserved here, unlike the other countries of the former Soviet bloc. Václav Havel carried on this tradition during the revolution of 1989, when as the leader of Civic Forum (Občanské fórum) he did not strive to become PM, but president. The demonstrators in the streets chanted “Havel to the Castle” (“Havel na Hrad” – the Office of the President) not “Havel to the Strakov Academy”, the seat of the Czechoslovak, and today the Czech, governments. In the eyes of Czech citizens, therefore, the head of state has never been a merely ceremonial office and current public opinion surveys show us that citizens here prefer active presidents.

This tradition of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents and the symbolism connected with this role has always eluded the logic of a parliamentary system, and Czech prime ministers have always had to deal with presidents who sometimes exceeded the limits of their constitutional powers. In those cases, the presidents were always helped by how the office of the head of state is perceived, by its symbolism. Prague Castle, as the seat of Czech kings, and today of Czech presidents, is well-known to the broader public, while to most people the seat of the government and the residence of the Czech prime minister are all but completely unidentifiable buildings somewhere in the center of Prague. Many other examples of the clear symbolic dominance of the office of the president compared to that of prime minister could be given, such as the fact that the Czechoslovak and Czech presidents have all been relatively famous compared to the Czechoslovak and Czech prime ministers, who have all remained relatively obscure from the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918 – 1938) until today.

Czech Senator Petr Pithart had this position of the Czech president in mind when he criticized the introduction of direct presidential elections during a speech in the upper chamber, pointing out the Czech tradition of “the high prestige of the office of the president together with benevolence toward the head of state’s missteps”. With the introduction of direct presidential elections, the strong position of the Czech head of state has now been enhanced. The president has won his own legitimacy from the citizens themselves, not indirectly through their representatives in parliament. President Miloš Zeman is aware of this and does not hesitate to milk this argument for all it is worth.

The prime minister, who depends on a more or less non-existent majority in the Chamber of Deputies, has always faced the fact that the president is de facto beyond recall and that the office of the president itself enjoys high prestige. There is obviously no better example of the instability of Czech governments and the weak position of their prime ministers than the very list of prime ministers of the country since 1993, of whom only two, Václav Klaus (1992 – 1996) and Miloš Zeman (1998 – 2002) made it to the end of their terms in office. Jiří Rusnok is the seventh prime minister to be appointed since 2002. When political scientist Tomáš Lebeda warned that “the result of direct [presidential] elections could be to further weaken our already chronically weak governments”, he was expressing the concerns of no small part of the political science community. Unfortunately, the current crisis is bearing his prophecy out.

In response to warnings of the danger of increasing the legitimacy and therefore the role of the president, defenders of direct presidential election responded with the argument that since the president’s powers would not be increased, his position would not be enhanced. This argument overlooks the institutional logic of direct presidential elections, as we are now seeing. According to the most widespread definition developed by Robert Elgie, the direct election of the head of state alongside the office of prime minister are the two attributes required in order to categorize a system as semi-presidential. The importance of such a constitutional change was realized by Petr Pithart when he said the following on the floor of the Senate: “I am convinced that we have before us the most far-reaching change to our constitutional system since the creation of our independent state. We are moving the system for the first time in a different direction, toward a different way of governing.” The system really has been redirected, and now we are grappling with the problems of semi-presidentialism in operation, such as the election of a charismatic president from a party that is all but unrepresented in parliament, and a dispute between two institutions each of which derives its legitimacy from the citizenry.

One of the disadvantages of direct presidential elections is the greater chance that a charismatic personality with minimal ties (or zero ties) to parliament will succeed. While Miloš Zeman is a former chair of the Czech Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), which today holds an absolute majority in the Senate as well as the greatest number of MPs in the lower house, he ran for the office of president on behalf of a new party, the Citizen's Rights Party for Zeman (Strana práv občanů Zemanovci - SPOZ), the name of which is sufficient proof of its character, based as it is on a single personality. There are two senators who are affiliated with SPOZ today, although they were originally elected for the ČSSD, and the president therefore enjoys almost zero support in parliament, apart from those MPs and senators for ČSSD who sympathize with him as the party’s former chair.

President vs. prime minister, promises kept

After the inauguration of Miloš Zeman, the Czech Republic found itself in the situation known as “cohabitation”, i.e., the president and prime minister are each from opposing political camps and must coexist. The position of Prime Minister Petr Nečas became even weaker because the government lost its comfortable majority from the 2010 elections of 118 MPs out of 200 and was depending on a weak majority in a fractured lower house where 17 MPs are not members of any party club. The situation of cohabitation makes creating coexistence and compromise between the two elements of executive power far more demanding. It is even more complicated when the institution of direct presidential election has just been introduced, the lower house is fractured, and the president is completely disconnected from any parties seated there. This shifts the balance of power in favor of the president, and we can expect the customary constitutional procedures that applied under parliamentarianism to now be transformed, as Miloš Zeman has explicitly declared his intention to change them.

France, the best-known example of a semi-presidential system, had to wait more than 20 years for its first situation of cohabitation to arise in 1986. In those days there was enough time to adapt to the new institutional balance. Even though the relationship between the Czech president and the government has been re-established to a certain degree, it has become the rule that the president always does his best to get as much room as he can for political negotiation.

The fact that Miloš Zeman will be no exception to the Czech tradition of active presidents was evident from his election campaign and his statements upon being chosen. During his visit to the lower house, he told its members: “Don’t expect me to be a bureaucrat who comes to the Castle… and thoughtlessly signs whatever is on his desk without reading it.” Shortly after taking office, he began to visit both chambers of parliament and has already visited the Senate three times during the first four months of his tenure – for comparison, his predecessor did this only twice during his entire 10 years in office. Zeman has attended cabinet meetings and has also begun testing the limits of his ability to get his own candidates appointed as ambassadors (such appointments are usually made by the president at the suggestion of the government) as well as refusing to appoint a particular university educator to the post of professor. Professors are usually appointed by the president at the suggestion of the university through the Czech Education Ministry.

Into this political redistribution of power we received news of the arrest of Jana Nagyová, the executive director of the prime minister’s cabinet, and of several former MPs. The arrest of this close co-worker of Prime Minister Petr Nečas resulted in the collapse of the government several days later, opening up even more room for the president to exercise his strongest power of all. The president is restricted in almost all of his important powers by the decisions of other institutions – the dismissal of ministers at the suggestion of the PM, the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies under clearly described circumstances, the appointment of Constitutional Court judges with the agreement of the Senate, etc. However, the naming of a new prime minister is the prerogative of the president alone, the most powerful weapon in his arsenal, and a president has directly appointed seven out of the last 11 PMs, which is probably too high a frequency.

To date the customary constitutional procedures were predicated on the notion that those appointed prime minister would have a chance at getting a majority in the lower house, which was the only body, until 2013, that enjoyed direct electoral legitimacy compared to the executive. Miloš Zeman, however, now enjoys that same legitimacy from the citizenry and, despite the fact that the government still needs to receive a vote of confidence from the lower house, he can proceed with far more self-confidence than a president elected by parliament might. Moreover, one of the slogans of his victorious election campaign was that he would stop the government of Petr Nečas. Here the problem of “dual legitimacy” clearly presented itself, whereby two institutions with direct electoral legitimacy are now clashing, and both are able to claim they are representing the people’s interests.

President Miloš Zeman fulfilled his electoral promise: Instead of appointing a new PM from the ranks of the right-wing coalition government, since its representatives declare they enjoy a majority in the Chamber of Deputies, he has appointed his own presidential government under the leadership of Jiří Rusnok. According to public opinion surveys, half of the citizenry agrees with the president’s move, i.e., approximately the same number of people who voted for him. Giovanni Sartori, a leading contemporary political scientist, says one of the characteristics of semi-presidential systems is the oscillation of power between the president and the PM, an attribute that is completely absent from either the parliamentary or the presidential systems. We can therefore view the appointment of Jiří Rusnok’s government as a temporary misalignment of power in favor of the president.

The dominance of this president over the government was clearly shown during the appointment of Prime Minister Rusnok and that of the whole cabinet, as it was the president in particular who established the tasks for the government, which the PM then accepted. Even though at this writing (prior to the vote of confidence) it might not seem that Rusnok’s government will win the vote of confidence in the lower house, its viability could last for several months even if it is voted down, especially should lengthy negotiations on appointing a new PM take place, since that appointment will once again be in the hands of the head of state. There is no time limit set for a president’s second attempt to appoint a PM, so Jiří Rusnok might not be handing over the office of the prime minister until a new PM is selected through regular elections in May 2014.

The Czech semi-presidential system has found itself in a difficult situation from the beginning. Because direct presidential elections have been introduced, a candidate can succeed in the elections even if he is from a party that is not represented in the lower house. The charismatic figure Miloš Zeman has become president by running against the former government of Petr Nečas. Because of these direct elections, this strengthened president now faces an unclear governmental majority in a fractured lower house, which enhances his role as a political actor even more and weakens the role of the PM. Furthermore, Miloš Zeman is carrying on the tradition of Czech presidents endeavoring to maximize their influence. This dispute between parliament and the president about the nature of the executive, i.e., to what extent the lower house will permit the president to act autonomously when choosing the prime minister, will tell us a great deal about the relationship between future prime ministers and the current president, and potentially will tell us about the relationships between their successors. One thing seems completely clear: The dire predictions from critics arguing against introducing direct presidential elections in the Czech Republic have very quickly come to pass now that the first directly elected president has taken office.

Štěpán Drahokoupil

Štěpán Drahokoupil is a PhD student at the Political Science Institute, Philosophy Faculty, Charles University in Prague, where he studied political science. His research focus is on comparative political science, specific political systems, and the theory of democratic, hybrid and undemocratic regimes.