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Summary Article: Czech Republic
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Landlocked country in east-central Europe, bounded north by Poland, northwest and west by Germany, south by Austria, and east by the Slovak Republic. From 2016 the Czech Republic's shortened English-language name became Czechia.

Government The Czech Republic is a multiparty democracy with a prime ministerial political executive. The 1992 constitution, which came into force in January 1993, provides for a two-chamber parliament, comprising a 200-member chamber of deputies and an 81-member senate. Deputies to the chamber of deputies are elected for four-year terms by universal adult suffrage under proportional representation, with a 5% threshold in eight electoral districts. Senators are elected in single-member constituencies for six-year terms, with a third elected a two year intervals. The president is head of state, serving a five-year term, renewable once. The president was elected by a joint session of parliament until 2012, when direct elections were introduced. The president appoints the prime minister, who in turn appoints a council of ministers (cabinet) commanding a majority in the chamber of deputies. There is a minimum age limit of 40 years for senators and the president. There are eight regions, subdivided into municipalities.

Creation For history before 1992, see Czechoslovakia. From the early 1990s there was evidence of increasing Czech and Slovak separatism in Czechoslovakia. In the 1992 assembly elections the Slovak-based Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS), led by Vladimir Meciar, won the largest number of seats. President Václav Havel resigned, and in August, after proposals for a federal style of government were rejected, the creation of separate Czech and Slovak states was agreed. The Czech Republic came into being on 1 January 1993, with Václav Klaus of the Obcanská Demokratická Strana (ODS; Civic Democratic Party) as premier. Havel was elected president, completing the ‘velvet divorce’.

In June 1993 a new currency was introduced, and a major realignment of political parties took place. The new republic was admitted into the United Nations and was formally invited to apply for European Community (now European Union (EU)) membership, which it did so in January 1996. In January 1994 it joined NATO's ‘partnership for peace’ programme as a prelude to full membership of the alliance, which was granted in March 1999.

Economic reform From 1992 the Klaus administration implemented market-centred economic reforms were implemented with the aim of establishing a Western-style capitalist economy. Despite an initial significant decline in GDP 1991–93 and a concurrent rise in crime, the republic's economic reform programme was, until recession in 1997–98, one of the most successful in central Europe. VAT was introduced in January 1993 and the Prague stock exchange reopened in April 1993 after more than 50 years' closure. Inflation was kept at around 10% per annum, there was substantial inward investment, and by 1994 the private sector's share of GDP had surpassed 50%, with more than six million Czechs participating in the first wave of voucher-based mass privatization. By 1996 the economy was expanding at an annual rate of 5%, with 70% of the economy privatized; unemployment had fallen to 2.9% and inflation to 8%.

Despite these successes, in the June 1996 general election, the ruling conservative coalition of the ODS, the Krest'anská a Demokratické Unie-Ceskoslovenská Strana Lidova (KDU-CSL Christian Democratic Union-Czech People's Party), and the Obcanska Demokratická Aliance (ODA; Civic Democratic Alliance), lost its parliamentary majority. The coalition remained in power as a minority government on the understanding that the centre-left Ceská Strana Sociálně Demokratická (CSSD; Czech Social Democratic Party) would be granted leadership of parliament and that privatization slowed. In the November election to the Senate, the coalition did well, winning 52 of the 81 seats and 65% of the vote.

In April 1997 74-year-old former communist politician Miloš Jakeš was charged with treason for his role in the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the ‘Prague Spring’ reforms.

Recession and crumbling coalition The Czech Republic's mid-1990s economic boom came to a halt in 1997, with negative economic growth during 1997–98 and a currency crisis which saw the koruna devalued by 12% against the US dollar. In September 1997, the Klaus government passed an austerity budget. But there were popular protests against these measures and the coalition was weakened by the resignation of foreign minister Josef Zieleniec in October 1997.

In November 1997 Klaus faced allegations that he had misled parliament over the source of a large donation to his party, and the ODA and the KDU-CSL withdrew from the coalition. This forced his resignation as prime minister and Josef Tosovsky, the governor of the central bank, formed a caretaker government pending new elections.

Fresh elections bring to power centre-left The centre-left CSSD, led by Miloš Zeman, finished narrowly ahead in this general election, in June 1998. It had campaigned on an anti-corruption and ‘social market’ platform, pledging to slow down the pace of privatization, and, with 32% of the vote, won 74 of the parliament's 200 seats. The mainstream right parties together won 45% of the vote, and the largely unreformed Komunistická Strana Cech a Morava (KSCM; Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia) won 11%. Zeman was able to put together a minority centre-left government and included seven ex-communists in a 19 member cabinet. Klaus became the parliament's speaker.

In the November 1998 elections to the Senate, the CSSD did much worse, due to concern that it might cooperate in the future with the communists. It was left with only 17 of 81 seats, leaving control of the Senate firmly in the hands of the KDU-CSL and ODA opposition alliance.

In 1999 the Czech Republic joined NATO.

TV protests In late December 2000 journalists at the Czech Republic's state television service went on strike to protest against the appointment of a new director general, Jiri Hodac, widely believed to be politically biased. Thousands of protesters also demonstrated in Prague. The appointment was alleged to have been forced through by Klaus. Hodac resigned on 11 January 2001, professing ill health. In late January parliament passed a new law allowing it to appoint a new, independent director, and the strike ended on 10 February 2001 when Jiri Balvin was appointed interim director.

Zeman as prime minister replaced by Spidia In April 2001 Prime Minister Miloš Zeman resigned as the chair of the the ruling CSSD. He was replaced by the deputy prime minister, Vladimir Spidla, who led the CSSD to victory in the June 2002 general election. Its vote share fell to 30% but it remained the leading party.

After the election Spidla formed a centrist coalition with the centrist KDU-CSL and the right-of-centre Freedom Union and the government focused on preparing the country for entry into the European Union (EU). This included passage of a package of reforms to raise the pension age, an increase consumer taxes, and a reduction in the pension deficit. In February 2003 parliament elected Klaus state president, defeating Zeman, and Klaus was later re-elected in February 2008.

EU membership The Czech Republic joined the EU on 1 May 2004. This followed a June 2003 referendum in which 77% of voters favoured accession. In December 2004 the Czech Republic's armed forces became all-volunteer and conscription was ended.

Changes in prime minister In July 2004 Spidla resigned as prime minister. This followed a poor performance by the CSSD in elections to the European Parliament, The deputy prime minister, Stanislav Gross, took over. Only 34 years old, Gross had enjoyed a meteoric rise and had a reputation of being an excellent negotiator who would be able to hold the fractious governing coalition together. But in April 2005 Gross himself resigned, following allegations about his financial affairs.

Jiri Paroubek took over as the country's third prime minister in nine months. An economist who had worked in state-owned industries under communist rule, Paroubek had been regional development minister under Gross since 2004.

Civic Democrats back in power Paroubek saw the CSSD increase its share of the vote in the June 2006 general election to 32%, but the party finished behind the Civic Democrats (ODS), who won 35% of the vote and 81 of the 200 seats. Led by the moderate Mirek Topolanek, the ODS secured the best result achieved by a single party since the Czech Republic was formed in 1993. Nevertheless, it took seven months before it was able to form a centre-right coalition, with the KDU-CSL and the Green Party. The coalition also held a majority within the senate.

Topolanek pledged to reform public finances and the welfare system and reduce the bureaucracy. He also announced, controversially, in January 2007, that the Czech Republic would allow the USA to build a radar tracking station southwest of Prague, as part of its missile shield system. In December 2007 the Czech Republic acceded to the Schengen Accord, abolishing border controls with Schengen states.

The Czech Republic enjoyed strong economic growth from 2004, averaging over 5% a year, with inflation below 3%. But along with other parts of Europe, the world financial crisis of 2008–09 brought this to a sudden halt. This forced the government to introduce an austerity budget and the opposition Social Democrats secured a landslide victory in regional and senate elections in October 2008.

Interim ‘government of experts’ In March 2009 Topolanek's government lost a no-confidence vote in the lower house and he was replaced as prime minister in May 2009 by Jan Fischer. The new prime minister was an independent, who had been president of the Czech Statistical Office since 2003, and he headed a caretaker ‘government of experts’ until new elections, which were held in May 2010.

New centre-right coalition government In the May 2010 general election the Social Democrats finished in first position, but, with only 22% of the vote (down 10%), were unable to form a government, and its leader, Jiri Paroubek, resigned. Led now by Petr Necas, the ODS was second, with 20% of the vote, and was able to form a centre-right coalition government. Its coalition partners were two new parties: Tradition Responsibility Prosperity 09 (Tradice Odpovědnost Prosperita 09: TOP 09), a free-market breakaway from the KDU-CSL, led by Karel Schwarzenberg, which won 17% of the vote; and Public Affairs, a right-wing populist and anti-corruption party led by the journalist Radek John, with 11% support.

Necas became prime minister and his government embarked on a programme of government spending cuts and further privatizations. Despite a worsening European economy, the Czech Republic GDP grew by 1.7% in 2011. However, the economy weakened from 2012–13 and divisions in the coalition prevented the government from passing some of its legislation.

Zeman elected president Discontent among older and poorer voters with the government's handling of the economic downturn enabled former prime minister, Miloš Zeman to become the Czech Republic's first directly elected president in January 2013. Zeman defeated the centre-right candidate, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, by a 55% to 45% margin. Zeman had retired from politics in 2003 after losing in his bid to become state president, but he had re-emerged in 2009 as leader of the newly-formed nationalist-populist Party of Civic Rights (SPO). He was sworn in as president in March 2013.

In June 2013 the coalition government of Necas fell as a result of a corruption and spying scandal. President Zeman appointed as new prime minister an ally, Jiri Rusnok, who had been finance minister 2001–02. This move was criticized by Zeman's opponents, who accused him of seeking to introduce a semi-presidential system.

Inconclusive elections Rusnok headed a ‘government of experts’, but it lost a confidence vote in August 2013.

Elections were held in October 2013 but brought another inconclusive result. Finishing first, the Social Democrats won only 20% of the vote and a quarter of the seats. Meanwhile, support slumped for the ODS, led now by Miroslava Němcová, to 8% (down 12%), and for TOP 09, to 12% (down 5%). The gainers were the Communist Party, with 15% support (up 4%) and two new populist parties: the centre-right, anti-corruption ANO 2011, led by the billionaire media magnate Andrej Babiš, with 19% support; and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Dawn of Direct Democracy, with 7%.

In January 2014 Social Democrats' leader Bohuslav Sobotka became prime minister, heading a coalition government with the centrist KDU-CSL and ANO 2011, with Andrej Babiš as finance minister and first deputy prime minister. The government pledged to reverse its predecessor's austerity programme to revive the stagnant economy, tackle tax evasion, strengthen relations with China, and play a more positive role in the EU.

However, there were tensions between Prime Minister Sobotka and President Zeman, who made controversial, pro-Russian comments on Russia's March 2014 annexation of Crimea (from Ukraine) and on EU proposals in September 2015 for compulsory state quotas for the large number of asylum-seeking refugees entering Europe during the Mediterranean refugee crisis.

ANO finishes first in 2017 general election In May 2017 the Sobotka government faced a crisis when finance minister Babiš was dismissed following allegations of fraud and tax evasion in relation to his business activities. However, in the general election held October 2017 the ANO, led by Babiš, gained support and finished first, winning 78 of the 200 lower house seats, with 30% of the vote. In contrast, the Social Democrats finished fifth, with only 15 seats and 7% of the vote.

The election saw political fragmentation, with nine parties winning seats and two new parties entering parliament in joint third positions, each with 22 seats and 11% of the vote: the Pirate Party, a populist, pro-direct democracy and anti-corruption party; and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), an anti-immigration and anti-Islam breakaway from Dawn of Direct Democracy.

Following the election, President Zeman invited Babiš to form a government. Other parties were unwilling to join Babiš and the ANO in a coalition because of the fraud charges he faced. Consequently, Babiš formed a minority government in December 2017.

In January 2018 the Babiš government was defeated in a confidence vote in parliament and the Chamber of Deputies voted to lift the immunity for prosecution Babiš enjoyed as a deputy.

Zeman re-elected president In January 2018 the Eurosceptic Zeman was re-elected president. Running on a nationalist-populist, anti-immigration platform, including opposition to proposed EU asylum-seeker quotas, he narrowly defeated Jiri Drahos, a centrist pro-EU independent, by a 51.4% to 48.6% margin. Zeman drew strongest support from areas dominated by traditional industries, agriculture, and with high levels of poverty. The close result highlighted widening political and socioeconomic divisions in the Czech Republic.

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Czech Republic

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Czech National Museum, Prague

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