Czech old guard under threat as president is impeached

By bne IntelliNews March 5, 2013

bne -

The Czech Senate voted on March 4 to impeach President Vaclav Klaus on charges of high treason. The move is seen as an attempt by the left-leaning opposition to leverage public fury over corruption to prevent the decades-long de facto leader of the Czech right from continuing in that role after he leaves office later this week.

The decision in the upper house of parliament, which is controlled by the Social Democrats (CSSD) and its allies, refers the president to the Constitutional Court, which will rule on whether he violated the constitution by granting a New Year's amnesty to more than 6,000 prisoners serving short jail terms and ending cases that have run for more than eight years.

Thirty-eight senators in the 81-seat house voted to file the charges, with 30 voting against. "Treason" is the only charge by which it is possible to impeach the president, an act which has never been undertaken previously. The initiators of the move have said that they would have preferred a less dramatic route to push against Klaus' amnesty. The court is expected to hear the case in the coming weeks.

The toughest possible punishment that Klaus faces if found guilty is to lose his office, presidential pension and the right to stand again in future. While the former and latter matter little given Klaus' second and final term - according to the constitution - runs out, the CSSD is looking to curtail Klaus' continued influence in Czech politics after this week.

The amnesty, from which the Civil Democrats (ODS) - the right-leaning leader of the current coalition government, which was co-founded by Klaus in 1991 - distanced itself, has caused outrage in the country, in particular over the halting of the prosecution of high-profile corruption cases involving millions of dollars in asset-stripping, bribes and fraud. Klaus, who has been widely criticized for the growth of high level corruption in the Czech Republic throughout his two decades or so as PM and president, has rejected accusations he deliberately formulated the amnesty to allow such criminals to go free.

"The Senate met its task of protecting the constitution by approving the suit," said Senator Jiri Dienstbier, a senior official in CSSD and the main figure pushing the impeachment, according to Reuters. "I am glad that the independent Constitutional Court will have the opportunity to consider how deeply the constitution was violated."

Unsurprisingly, Klaus and the ODS have criticized the move. Even Prime Minister Petr Necas - no friend of the president given Klaus' efforts to topple him as head of the ODS (and therefore as PM) late last year - claimed it is a petty political charade aimed at settling old scores.

Following the Senate vote, a spokesman for Klaus said: "It is sad that some people from our political opposition are using the threat of the Constitutional Court to deal with their political disagreement."

However, many also see it as a bid to oust the old and entrenched political elite that has dominated Czech politics since the fall of communism. The victory of Milos Zeman in January's elections to replace Klaus brought that issue very much to the fore. Zeman led the CSSD in the lower house against Klaus at the head of the ODS through the 1990s and early part of this century, and even essentially shared the PM's chair with him when officially in office though the so-called "opposition agreement".

These days, the similarities shared by the old foes - the long political careers, closely-held ties to Russian interests, sensitive egos and a tendency to hold a strong grudge, and highly critical approach to the younger generation of Czech politicians - makes them look more like birds of a feather. Indeed, Klaus enthusiastically supported his old foe's campaign to take over the presidency, and like his predecessor, Zeman has promised to get heavily involved in government business.

Meanwhile, Klaus has made no secret of the fact that he plans to retain his power over the Czech right once he leaves the presidency. Although he told Czech daily Pravo at the weekend that he does not plan to return to the ODS, nor to run for a seat in the European Parliament, he also refused to rule out such moves.

The CSSD - which appears a shoe-in to form the next government at the next elections in 2014 - is clearly hoping to finally bring the curtain down on Klaus' political career, as an impeachment would damage his chances of continued influence. At the same time, the current leadership of the CSSD has probably more to fear from the new president following a bitter fallout with Zeman in 2007. Hitting Klaus may also curtail Zeman's power, reducing his ability to meddle in party and parliamentary politics.

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