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Czech PM, extremists praise Czech President's Christmas speech, presidential candidates criticize it

27.12.2017 11:14
Jiří Drahoš, a candidate for President of the Czech Republic in 2017, shown here in 2009 in his role as Chair of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic giving a speech at the closing of the International Year of Astronomy. (PHOTO:  Wikimedia Commons, Czech Wikipedia user Packa)
Jiří Drahoš, a candidate for President of the Czech Republic in 2017, shown here in 2009 in his role as Chair of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic giving a speech at the closing of the International Year of Astronomy. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons, Czech Wikipedia user Packa)

This year's Christmas message from Czech President Miloš Zeman has divided the domestic political scene. Czech PM Andrej Babiš, the head of the ANO movement, expressed appreciation for the speech, as did SPD chair Tomio Okamura, who said it reflected the priorities of his own "Freedom and Direct Democracy" movement.

The head of the Communists, Vojtěch Filip, highlighted that the President's words were a sign of his faith in what he called "working people's" own abilities and strengths. Negative assessments of the speech came from Zeman's traditional critics such as politicians from the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL), STAN and TOP 09, while representatives of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) were reserved in their commentary, as were some of Zeman's rivals in next month's elections for the head of state.

Ivan Bartoš, the head of the Pirates, said Zeman's message was not generous enough. The Czech PM, however, said it was a good, inspiring speech.

"The speech was constructive, friendly, positive. He reiterated his well-known economic and political opinions, his opinions about the EU and our role in it. I think it was inspiring, he's right, we should hold our heads high and be proud of our country," the PM said on Czech Television.

Bartoš said he did not understand why the President had used the holiday speech to especially talk about the priorities of the Babiš minority Government. He also said the speech had lacked any element of reconciliation.

"Each part [of the speech] contained a sentence, or an entire conjecture, that was barbed. A Christmas speech is not a political campaign where it's necessary to kick your ideological opponent or to score political points. From a President whose term is ending I would expect more generosity. When it's Christmas, especially," Bartoš wrote to the Czech News Agency.

The Pirate chair also mentioned that compared to his rivals, Zeman enjoys enormous access ahead of the first round of the direct elections to many online media outlets as well as radio and television stations. "The President reiterated a couple of pointers, he kicked at Sobotka, at refugees, at his favorite 'inadaptables', at the European Union and Czech Television, and he buttered up Babiš," Bartoš noted.

The Communist chair analyzed the speech to the Czech News Agency as follows:  "The Christmas message of the President of the Republic was delivered as a sign of his faith in the Czech nation's own abilities and strengths and in those of the working people, and it was a call to keep on improving the situation. President Miloš Zeman also pointed out some persistent deficiencies, such as the small proportion of public investment, or the high proportion of bureaucracy, that is limiting our future opportunities."

The SPD chair  worte to the Czech News Agency that "Mr President's speech was given in a lightly optimistic spirit and, to my pleasant surprise, also in the vein of the SPD's priorities." Okamura mentioned as priorities the valorization of pensions by a fixed amount, the rejection of refugee reception, and Zeman's statement that politicians can be "traded in".

As far as discussions about forming the Government go, the SPD claims to be willing to negotiate in exchange for its priorities being advocated. "The ball is in the other court now," Okamura emphasized.

Czech MP Martin Kupka (ODS) said the President's speech had not delivered any braver vision of the future but had instead focused on "banal information", and he also took exception to Zeman's words about forming the Government. "A rather extensive part of that speech was just ghastly taunts by the very person who contributed to there being no political negotiations about a future Government, to their not having to be held," he told the Czech News Agency.

The chair of TOP 09, Jiří Pospíšil, said the President had again spoken mainly about ordinary political operations instead of about values. He said some kind of statement about the meaning of democracy and freedom to Czech society had been lacking.

"Even at Christmas he can't stop supporting Andrej Babiš," the TOP 09 chair said of Zeman's address. "I agree with the President that the Czech Republic needs fewer bureaucrats and more money for investments, but I'm not certain whether such a message belongs in the head of state's Christmas message."

The chair of the Christian Democratic Union, Pavel Bělobrádek, said he traditionally does not follow the speech from the President's chateau at Lány on Saint Stephen's Day because he lunches with his in-laws at that time. His party colleague, former Czech Culture Minister Daniel Herman, reacted on Twitter to Zeman's words about "trading in" politicians but not the citizens.

"We'll trade in Zeman in January so we don't have to be ashamed of him anymore," Herman tweeted. Jan Bartošek, head of the Christian Democratic faction in the lower house, said, "I am not absolutely certain that shaking a clenched fist is appropriate to the New Year's speech."

"This was a recapitulation of Mr President's well-known opinions about the state of the country and its politics, and it was a campaign speech. A Christmas message with a cohesive overview was given yesterday by Pope Francis," commented Petr Gazdík, the leader of the STAN party.

"I'm glad the President appreciated the increases to pensions and wages. That was thanks to the policies of the previous Government, and not all parties in the coalition were always in favor of that," said Czech MP Jan Hamáček (Czech Social Democratic Party - ČSSD), the vice-chair of the Chamber of Deputies.

Presidential candidates sharply criticize Zeman's message

Jiří Drahoš, a candidate in next month's presidential elections, said Zeman has absolutely ignored performing the President's role during the forming of a Government. He also said Zeman has done his best throughout his term to undermine the country's membership in the European Union and NATO.

The former head of the Academy of Sciences made his remarks in response to Zeman's Christmas message. Other candidates, such as the entrepreneur and lyricist Michal Horáček or former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, also objected to the speech, but not all of Zeman's rivals commented on his appearance on Saint Stephen's Day.

Horáček said he agrees with Zeman that the Czech Republic should play the role of a self-confident partner in the EU and NATO. "Nevertheless, I am of the opinion that such policy is better made in Berlin, Brussels or Paris. Not in Beijing or Moscow," he said in response to Zeman's address.

Given the state of the country's roads, Horáček also said he believes investment into transportation infrastructure is necessary. Like Zeman, he also believes the Czechs should be a proud, self-confident nation.

Another candidate, former diplomat Pavel Fischer, said the red thread running through the President's time at Prague Castle has been his "stupid attacks on journalists", especially on the public broadcast media. "Let's drink to the victory of rationality over stupidity together with the President," Fischer tweeted.

Physician Marek Hilšer did not directly comment on Zeman's speech, but tweeted an image of himself with the following quote that afternoon:  "We need independent journalists. It's just the manipulators bothered by their work who threaten them," adding the message that it is always good to recall this "golden rule of a free society".

Drahoš issued a press release stating that anybody who had been anticipating something better or new from Zeman's message as he ends his term in office must have been disappointed. "Basically the only innovation in Miloš Zeman's speech is his shaking his fist, a new element for a Christmas message," he noted.

Zeman raised his clenched fist at the moment in his speech when he was ruling out the idea of calling early elections, and other commentators and politicians also noticed the gesture. Drahoš said he believed Zeman was telling everybody in advance what kind of Government he wants.

The candidate believes Zeman does not want a stable, strong Government, but a minority one supported by extremists. "He won't call early elections?" Drahoš asked.

"We don't have to desire that outcome either, but what if there is no alternative? Would he prefer to leave the country without a proper Government for four years?" read the candidate's press release.

The former head of the Academy of Sciences also criticized the current President for mentioning EU and NATO membership after having just addressed a recent convention of the SPD movement. That party wants the Czech Republic to leave both organizations.

Candidate Topolánek said he believes Zeman contradicted himself more than once in his Saint Stephen's Day speech. "[Zeman] even manages to positively assess the achievements of the last Government before venting his spite for Bohuslav Sobotka," the former PM posted to Facebook yesterday evening.

"[Zeman] speaks of insufficient negotiations after the elections - when he himself essentially prevented them through his premature moves," the former PM posted, adding that he does not know whether Zeman can be believed when he categorically rejects early elections. "That anti-immigration rhetoric, which I otherwise share, could weaken calls for solidarity with the suffering."

"My overall assessment:  No surprises," posted the former PM. Those campaigning against Zeman include Petr Hannig, a musician and head of the "Rationalists" party (Rozumní); Jiří Hynek, the president of the Association of Defense and Security Industries; and the former head of Škoda Auto in Mladá Boleslav, Vratislav Kulhánek.

ČTK, ryz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Andrej Babiš, KSČM, Michal Horáček, Miloš Zeman



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