President-elect Miloš Zeman on Tuesday launched a series of high-level meetings with the country’s political leaders. The talks are intended to set the framework for future cooperation and heal the rifts of a ruthless election campaign.
Photographers and camera crews jostled for position at Prague Castle on Wednesday to capture the first official meeting of the outgoing and future presidents. And Vaclav Klaus and Miloš Zeman – alternately political foes and political allies since the 1990s – beamed and exchanged complements. President Klaus, who openly supported Miloš Zeman in the election campaign, said that now that the battle was over the age-old rivals could go back to being sworn enemies.
The jovial atmosphere at Prague Castle was in stark contrast to that in Loretanská street, several hours later, where the president-elect received a grim-faced prime minister Petr Nečas. It was their first meeting face-to-face since the president-elect spoke out in favour of early elections, saying that the government lacked legitimacy and even speculated about whether the president’s powers would allow him to dismiss the prime minister. The meeting scheduled for one hour stretched to two but eventually the prime minister came out to tell journalists that the president-elect’s bark was worse than his bite and express cautious optimism regarding future cooperation.
“I think we need to differentiate between statements made during the election campaign and its immediate aftermath and those made when the dust settles and we go back to the drawing board. The meeting with the president was non-conflictual and constructive and although there are issues on which we fail to see eye to eye I think I can safely say that neither of us wants early elections.”
Meetings with other members of the Nečas cabinet are also likely to be strained. A meeting with Mr. Zeman’s unsuccessful election rival Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has yet to be set and their relations are still frosty in the wake of a ruthless election campaign. The two will be expected to cooperate closely in coordinating the country’s foreign policy. Even more problematic is a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Karolina Peake who is head of the recently established LIDEM party in government which Miloš Zeman refuses to acknowledge as a legitimate member of the ruling coalition. In fact the president-elect recently noted that there are only two professionals in the Nečas cabinet – Education Minister Petr Fiala and Health Minister Leoš Heger.
Commentators note that Miloš Zeman is playing a cat and mouse game with political leaders and, after ten years in retirement, is clearly enjoying his new-found power and influence. Like Václav Klaus, he has extremely strained relations with the party he founded and some of his former opponents in the Social Democratic Party, who contributed to his downfall in the 2003 presidential elections, are now likely to be highly uneasy. Miloš Zeman, who walked out of the Social Democratic Party a few years later and founded a new political grouping of his own, recently dismissed suggestions that he could divide and destroy his former party out of spite. He said he would neither help nor hinder the main opposition party but has done little to quell speculation on the subject, meeting with his staunchest Social Democrat allies ahead of an official meeting with party leader Bohuslav Sobotka.
As the Czech Republic prepares for a change of guard in the office of the president tension remains high across the political spectrum and while many questions remain unanswered it is clear even now that Mr. Zeman’s promise to unite the country will prove a much harder task than he may ever have anticipated.