News in Brief: February’s Headlines in the Czech Republic

A round-up of Czech news headlines from February. Title image: Casadei Graphics.

Czech and US Governments Strengthen Ties With High-Level Visits

Foreign Minister Tomas Petříček visited Washington DC from 20 February to 23 February, meeting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and USAID Administrator Mark Green. The agenda included discussions on the state of Czech – American relations, the Transatlantic Partnership and issues of cyber and energy security. Petříček also met representatives of the Czech-American community and addressed two think tanks (Prague Daily Monitor, 19 Feb, “Foreign Affairs Minister Petříček to visit USA”).

During the visit, on 21 February, the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Stephen King, announced on Twitter that President Donald Trump would be inviting Prime Minister Andrej Babiš for a visit to the White House on 7 March, the first such visit by a Czech Prime Minister for eight years (Prague Daily Monitor, 21 Feb, “Trump invites Babiš to White House”). The meeting between Babiš and Trump is likely to focus on trade and cyber-security (Radio Prague, 21 Feb, “Commentator: tariffs and threat of trade war likely to dominate Czech-US talks in Washington”).

Ministers Announce New Measures To Combat Drought

On 6 February, several cabinet ministers, including the Environment and Agriculture Ministers and Prime Minister Babiš, participated in a meeting of the National Coalition Against Drought. Following the meeting, various measures were proposed to address the country’s serious problems with drought, including artificial infiltration and subsidies for rainwater storage facilities. Agriculture experts from junior coalition partner CSSD are also suggesting a constitutional amendment to protect the status of water, as already exists in Slovakia (Radio Praha, 7 Feb, “Ministers announce steps to combat drought”).

Arguments Continue Between Coalition Partners Over Make-Up of Cabinet

Reports emerged that the Communist Party, who provide external support to the coalition, were unhappy with Transport Minister Dan Tok (ANO) for his handling of roadworks on the D1 motorway, and Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček (ČSSD) for his support for Ukraine in its recent territorial dispute with Russia in the Sea of Azov. Petříček has also been criticised by President Zeman and Prime Minister Babiš during his time in the role. Communist leader Vojtěch Filip met Babiš to discuss the matter (Prague Daily Monitor, 8 Feb, “Communists have problem with Tok and Petricek”). In response, ČSSD leader Jan Hamáček defended Petříček and the other ČSSD appointments in the cabinet, and said they would not be replaced (Prague Daily Monitor, 25 Feb, “Hamáček says he will not change ČSSD ministers”).

Babis Re-elected President of ANO at Party Conference

At the ANO movement’s party conference in Chodov, Prague, on 17 February, Andrej Babiš and Jaroslav Faltýnek, the party’s parliamentary leader, were re-elected Party President and First Vice President, respectively. Babiš, who ran unopposed, received support from 206 of the 238 delegates present. Environment Minister Richard Brabec, former Brno Mayor Petr Vokřál, Central Bohemian Governor Jaroslava Pokorná Jermanová and Parliamentary Speaker Radek Vondráček were all elected as additional Vice Presidents (Prague Daily Monitor, 18 Feb, “Babiš and Faltýnek remain as ANO leaders”).

Charles University Sues President Zeman Over His Refusal To Appoint Professors

Charles University in Prague, the country’s oldest university, has sued President Miloš Zeman over his refusal to appoint two of the university’s academics, Ivan Ostadal and Jiří Fajt, as full professors. Zeman has consistently refused to do so since 2015, despite a court ruling against him (Prague Daily Monitor, 12 Feb, “Charles University files suit against Zeman for not naming professors”). The university’s decision received support from the Czech Rectors Conference, the leading education body in the country (Prague Daily Monitor, 15 Feb, “Rectors conference supports Charles Uni. in battle against Zeman”).

New Pro-European Liberal Party To Contest European Elections

Pavel Telička, a well-known one-time European commissioner and current MEP elected on the ANO ticket, has formed a new pro-European liberal party called Voice, to contest the European elections in May and promote liberal democratic ideas in the Czech Republic. Experts suggest that Telička’s name-recognition will prove beneficial for the new party, but that it will also face competition from the numerous other parties with a similar ideological position (Radio Praha, 6 Feb, “Will Czech voters opt for new Voice in European elections?”).

Public Engagement Attempts By Czech Political Parties Disrupted By Opponents

More than one Czech political party has recently seen an attempt to reach out to the public online backfire in recent weeks.

First was the far-right SPD, who created an online poll to measure public opposition to plans being considered by the government to provide refuge for Syrian orphans. Almost 10,000 people participated in the poll, with 73% of them supporting the plans. The poll was taken offline a few hours later (Euractiv, 22 Feb, “Czech far-right supporters expose their party, back Syrian orphans”).

Then it was the turn of the Christian Democrats, who launched a competition to celebrate National Marriage Week, in which married couples were invited to submit captioned photos of themselves on the party’s Facebook page, with the winner to be selected at random, winning a private dinner with Party Chairman Pavel Bělobrádek. The competition was inundated by same-sex couples, entering to protest the party’s vocal opposition to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the Czech Republic. In the end, around a third of the entries were from same-sex couples, meaning Bělobrádek may end up dining with a couple who he believes should not be allowed to marry (Radio Prague, 22 Feb, “Guess who’s coming to dinner? LGBTQ couple could win Christian Democrats’ marriage contest”).

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