By Jan Lopatka
PRAGUE (Reuters) - Ultimately Czech President Milos Zeman couldn't quite beat the parliamentary arithmetic, but he still emerged on Wednesday with the upper hand over old political rivals in his remarkable comeback from the wilderness.
While his prime minister lost a confidence motion, Zeman blithely told parliament before it had even voted that he would stay for some time - "even if you put me on the rack".
On the way to Wednesday's vote, the veteran left-winger pulled off a coup by persuading the Social Democrats - the party he fell out with a decade ago - to back the cabinet that he installed in June without consulting the parties.
In the end the votes of the Social Democratic Party (CSSD) did not save Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, a close Zeman ally, from failing his first parliamentary test. But the vote also sowed divisions in the center-right, which makes early elections look more likely - as Zeman favors - in the absence of a stable majority that could claim the right to form a cabinet.
And the CSSD's reversal of its original opposition to the cabinet illustrates how Zeman, 68, has turned his fortunes around and is accumulating power that previous Czech presidents never held.
Zeman led the same Social Democrats in government as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, but he eventually left the country's largest center-left party after its leadership sank his first run for the presidency in 2003.
After a lost decade, he emerged from forced retirement to win the job he coveted in January this year in the Czech Republic's first direct presidential election - previous heads of state had been chosen by parliament.
Since then Zeman has been turning the largely ceremonial presidency into a center of power, sidelining parliament and the main political parties.
Commentators and opponents accuse him of flouting democratic conventions. But Zeman, an economic forecaster by training who draws his support from poorer Czechs beyond the capital Prague, has dismissed what he calls "media criticism of jealous fools".
Zeman has made the most of his powers since a center-right coalition fell in June over a scandal involving police charges of bribery and illegal snooping, and his action has been popular with voters angered by years of austerity and corruption.
Rusnok's cabinet has cleared out dozens of government and state officials before facing the confidence vote, drawing accusations that it was exceeding its mandate.
Zeman, who constitutionally has the power to appoint prime ministers, appears to have a limited regard for the will of parliament. Even before the vote, he said Rusnok would stay during police investigations into links between politicians and businessmen that contributed to the last government's demise.
"I have been assured this investigation will be concluded in several weeks and, I can assure you, even if you put me on the rack I will not make a second attempt (to form a cabinet) during those several weeks," he told parliament.
Supporters say Zeman has brought energy to the presidency, even though his predecessors - former anti-communist playwright Vaclav Havel and eurosceptic conservative Vaclav Klaus - carried weight at home and were widely known abroad.
"The Czech political scene was used to presidents who were just laying wreaths," said Jaroslav Foldyna, a Zeman supporter in the Social Democratic Party. "He has no further political ambitions, nothing to lose, and decided to sort things out."
Zeman doesn't fit the template of the polished, media-friendly modern politician. He is a burly, sausage-loving, heavy smoker who makes no secret of his liking for a drink, though after a recent diagnosis of diabetes the health minister says he needs to cut down on both tobacco and alcohol. He is quick to remind people that Winston Churchill, too, was a drinker, while Adolf Hitler was teetotal.
Zeman also makes no secret of his scorn for his critics, taking a particularly dim view of journalists. He has referred to the news media as a "cesspool" and "islands of negative deviation".
All this translates into an effective common touch, enough to draw 2.7 million votes, or 55 percent of the total, in the January election.
Zeman's circle includes former Communist officials and businessmen, including the head of a Czech unit of Russian oil firm Lukoil. During the presidential campaign, he appealed to nationalism and anti-German feelings still harbored by some Czechs more than six decades after the Nazi occupation.
Zeman studied economics and joined the Communist Party in the late 1960s as the ruling party was trying to push a liberal line. Months later the "Prague Spring" was crushed by a 1968 Soviet-led invasion, and, like many reform-minded members, he was purged from the party a couple of years later.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Zeman joined the newly recreated CSSD and nine years later led it in a minority government under a power-sharing deal with his chief opponent - and later president - Vaclav Klaus.
His government won credit for privatizing banks to foreign owners, forming a sound base for the financial system. However, critics say the power-sharing deal allowed a flourishing of corruption, which remains a major problem despite the Czech Republic's reforms and entry into the European Union in 2004.
In foreign policy, Zeman is a European federalist and wants the country to join the euro, but also has a soft spot for Russia.
OLD WOUNDS, NEW PARTY
Zeman spent much of his lost decade at his weekend house, although his continuing influence among Social Democrats and disdain for those who had scotched his presidential hopes, sowed divisions in the party that have still not healed.
In 2009, his disciples formed the "Citizens' Rights Party - The Zemanites" which carried him to the presidency. He has repaid their support, handing party officials and sympathizers spots in the presidential administration and cabinet.
"Zeman is behaving the way he has always known. He has power and knows how to use it: offer some of it to his allies and kick his enemies to the ground. He knows nothing else," wrote columnist Jindrich Sidlo.
(Additional reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Will Waterman and David Stamp)