By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - The new Czech cabinet has embarked on a bureaucratic purge, provoking the kind of conflict over democratic legitimacy that is dividing a number of central and eastern European countries two decades after the fall of communism.
Since coming to power, the cabinet led by a close ally of President Milos Zeman has cleared out dozens of officials from government departments and state institutions, drawing accusations that it is exceeding its mandate before a parliamentary vote of confidence this week it may well lose.
Zeman appointed Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok last month against the wishes of the leading political parties of both the right and left which accuse the Czech Republic's first popularly-elected president of trying to grab powers that should belong to parliament.
After weeks of political instability, the country may face yet more months of uncertainty as the parties and president squabble over dominance. This risks damaging its image as a safe haven for investors and complicates attempts to end a lengthy recession and draft a budget for 2014.
Elsewhere in post-communist Europe, the limits to power of political leaders are also hotly debated. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has drawn accusations from home and abroad that his policies run counter to the behavior expected of a European leader - charges he denies.
But whereas Orban has a two thirds majority in parliament, Rusnok was appointed without any new election and so far he lacks enough support to be sure of winning the confidence vote in the Czech lower house, set for Wednesday.
Zeman, a chain-smoking and hard-drinking former Social Democrat, believes his election by the Czech people gives him a stronger mandate than his predecessors in the presidency, who were voted in by parliament under a previous system.
A Social Democrat premier in 1998-2002 who later split from the party, he installed the leftist cabinet after the last government fell over allegations of corruption and spying.
Current Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka, who failed in an attempt to force early elections, is among the party leaders lining up to criticize the purge of officials.
"A government that was not appointed on the basis of an agreement among parties, which has no legitimacy from democratic elections, should be very careful about how it interferes with the workings of the state apparatus," said Sobotka, whose party leads in opinion polls.
In the past new Czech governments have commonly changed personnel, but these were formed by elected parties. This time, the Rusnok cabinet has fired between 60 and 80 officials, including deputy heads of ministries and the chief of the state railways, without any parliamentary confirmation.
Replacements in the jobs often have links to the president, such as the new boss of Czech Railways who occupied the position once before when Zeman was premier.
Rusnok says his cabinet has acted within the rules of democracy. "We have legitimacy given by the constitution," he told a news conference on Friday. With one minor exception, he said, the changes "were acutely needed and I stand behind them".
His government's survival hangs in the balance. Rusnok said on Czech Television on Sunday he thought he could count on 96 or 97 votes in the 200-seat house, expressing the hope that this would be enough to achieve a majority among members present.
Rusnok is also under fire over a small party created by Zeman's supporters, called "Citizens' Rights Party-the Zemanites" (SPOZ), which is gaining power through the new cabinet without having won any parliamentary seats.
SPOZ's deputy leader Radek Augustin was appointed head of the cabinet office. Rusnok himself, while not a member, once ran on the party's ticket in a local election.
Some believe the party of Zeman supporters is the real power in the cabinet, rather than Rusnok. "The government of SPOZ, although it is called the Rusnok government, and which failed in an election, is destabilizing and threatening the very system," said Miroslav Kalousek, head of the conservative TOP09 party, a member of the center-right coalition which fell in June.
The European Union's eastern members are largely young democracies compared with those in the West, and few Czechs remember their nation's first two periods under a multi-party system that were ended by the Nazis and the Communists.
Even 24 years after Communism fell in much of central and eastern Europe, disputes frequently surface over the acceptable limits of exercising power in a parliamentary democracy.
In Romania the government has been in conflict with the president and judiciary in the past year, while Bulgarians have staged protests for weeks against endemic corruption and to demand the resignation of the new Socialist-led government.
Outside the Balkans, tens of thousands protested in Budapest early last year against Orban, accusing him of using his two thirds majority to push through a new constitution they said threatened the checks and balances of Hungary's political system.
Hungary has also been involved in a series of disputes with the European Union including over the constitution and a press law, as well as independence of the central bank - which is now led by an Orban ally - and of the judiciary.
Orban denies any anti-democratic behavior, saying he is reforming Hungary to tackle an economic mess left by previous Socialist governments and to shake off a hangover of Communism.
By contrast Zeman, 68, has not presented any plan to reshape the Czech nation. At the moment headlines are focused more on his health, after he was diagnosed with diabetes. His own health minister Martin Holcat said on Friday that the president must cut down from his usual 40-to-50 cigarettes a day and sharply reduce his alcohol consumption.
While Zeman may lack a political vision similar to Orban's, he seems to have used the fall of the highly unpopular center-right government as an opportunity to boost his powers at the expense of the parties.
The two previous Czech heads of state, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus, were both elected by parliament but Zeman won the country's first direct presidential election in January.
If the Rusnok cabinet survives, political analysts say the center of political gravity will shift from parliament towards the president, who has said his popular mandate allows him to re-interpret his constitutional powers in his favor.
Even if the government loses, parties fear Zeman may drag out the process of finding a new prime minister, leaving Rusnok in office as a caretaker. Then he could simply pick another ally or possibly reappoint Rusnok.
In the meantime, the replacements of officials continue. So far the government has said it would accept Zeman's candidates for several ambassadorships who had been blocked by the previous administration. These include Livia Klausova, the wife of his predecessor Klaus who endorsed Zeman in the January election.
On Thursday the new culture minister fired the director of the National Theatre on the day he was supposed to take office, although he was re-instated less than 24 hours after several star actors resigned.
Sobotka called the episode "arrogant and very silly" but the head of Zeman's office, former SPOZ chairman Vratislav Mynar, said he had no problem with the government's actions before the confidence vote. "This is fully under the authority of the premier and his ministers," he told Czech Television.
(Additional reporting by Robert Muller and Jason Hovet; editing by David Stamp)