Hospitalised Czech president set to be stripped of powers as scandal brews over signature

Hospitalised Czech president set to be stripped of powers as scandal brews over signature
The report on the health of President Milos Zeman (left) is 'surprising', said Prime Minister Andrej Babis (right).
By bne IntelliNews October 19, 2021

Czech President Milos Zeman, who was hospitalized in intensive care a week ago, is currently unable to perform his presidential duties, said Senate Chair Milos Vystrcil on October 18, based on a statement by the Central Military Hospital. 

Vystrcil said the Senate would meet on October 19 to discuss activating Article 66 of the Czech Constitution, according to which the president’s powers will be transferred to the other constitutional authorities: the speaker of the Senate, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and the current (outgoing) prime minister, Andrej Babis.

The Senate's constitutional committee unanimously agreed on October 19 that his powers should be transferred. The whole Senate is expected to vote on transferring the president's powers on November 5, while the lower house should vote on it after November 8, when a new Chamber of Deputies is convened.

Following Vystrcil's press conference, on October 19 Czech police announced that they would launch an investigation "into a possible illegal act, in which signs of criminal offenses against the republic can be seen".

The investigation is likely to be into suspicions that the president's key advisers ignored medical advice that he was unable to perform his duties. It may also look into speculation that a signature the president allegedly made in hospital on an order reconvening parliament on November 8 was forged because he was unable to sign it himself.

The investigation could shed a light on the shadowy behaviour of the president's advisers, who opposition parties accuse of usurping Zeman's powers as the head of state during his incapacity. The danger the opposition politicians now want to avert is the president's advisers in effect taking over his responsibilities until the new parliament meets on November 8, when it can transfer the president's powers to the new speaker.

The scandal could also mark a sad and undignified end to Zeman's presidency, one that has always been surrounded by controversy. If Zeman is never able to continue as president, Babis is likely to be one of the strongest candidates to succeed him, which could enable him to retain significant power after losing the general election earlier this month.

Current lower house speaker Radek Vondracek, of Babis' ANO party, brought back the signed order from the president after an unauthorised visit to the hospital with the head of the president's office, Vratislav Mynar, but the signature was immediately disputed by those who know Zeman's handwriting.

As the news of the police probe broke on October 19, Babis called for Mynar to resign.  "The whole situation that has arisen here is from the inadequate and unacceptable activity of Chancellor Mynár, so it would be best if he resigned immediately. What he demonstrated is absolutely unacceptable, " wrote Babis.

However, Mynar rebuffed the premier. "The president of the republic is Miloš Zeman, who appointed me to the position and is the only one who has the right to dismiss me," Mynar wrote.

If the opposition-led Senate goes ahead and, with the agreement of the lower house, removes Zeman's powers, it should make it easier to form a new government, however this transfer is unlikely to happen until the new lower house convenes on November 8 after the general election on October 8-9.  At that point, the new speaker, set to be elected by the opposition SPOLU and PIRSTAN coalitions, could entrust Petr Fiala, leader of SPOLU, with forming a new government. 

There has been constant speculation that Zeman, 77,  could try to hold up the formation of a new opposition-led government, but the grave state of his health has already made this look improbable; the removal of his powers will make it impossible.

Vystrcil noted the hospital believes the long-term prognosis for Zeman's health is extremely uncertain. The possibility of returning to office in the coming weeks is therefore unlikely. This could leave the Czech Republic effectively without a president until the new parliament meets in three weeks time.

"In the opinion of the Central Military Hospital, President Milos Zeman is not currently able, due to health reasons, to carry out any work duties," Vystrcil said, as quoted by Reuters. "In the [hospital's] opinion, given the character of President Zeman's underlying illness, the long-term prognosis of his health condition is highly uncertain and thus the possibility of his return to performing work duties in the coming weeks is evaluated as unlikely."

There is no official diagnosis of the president's illness, though there is speculation that it is related to cirrhosis of the liver, from a lifetime of heavy drinking. Zeman also suffers from diabetes.

The Czech president has a key constitutional role in naming the new PM who is to form a new government.  He has two nominations – which Zeman had previously promised to Babis – before the responsibility is transferred to the speaker of the lower house. Babis, leader of his ANO party, has said he would reject a potential offer from Zeman to form the new cabinet.

As reported by bneIntellinews, the new government will be likely formed by the winning opposition coalitions of SPOLU (rightwing Civic Democrats, centre-right Christian Democrats and TOP09) and the Pirates and STAN coalition. 

Babis called the hospital report "surprising". "It is a question whether it is a permanent condition or there is some chance to improve; that I cannot judge," he said.

Fiala said the hospital's report was "very serious". "It is necessary to find an agreement on the way forward across the political spectrum," he said.

The controversy over Zeman's signature demonstrates the concern over the way that his key advisers – Mynar and Martin Nejedly – have often appeared to be controlling the ailing president, while providing little and apparently misleading information about his health. Doctors at the hospital were reportedly furious after Vondracek downplayed Zeman's health problems and reported after his visit that the president was "telling jokes and in a good mood".

In the past Zeman's key officials have also been attacked for allegedly following their own private business interests, rather than Zeman's or the state's, and for being too close to the Kremlin. Some analysts now believe the advisers – neither of whom has security clearance – are desperate to cover their tracks or even secure a promise of immunity from the new government before Zeman is forced to retire and a new president is elected.

Mynar was present at the meeting between Zeman and Vondracek and both allegedly witnessed the signing of the presidential order. Even if this actually happened, Mynar already knew that Zeman's doctors regarded him as unfit to carry out his duties, so he should not have presented him with the order to sign.

According to Mynář, information on the prognosis of the president's recovery is only available to the head of state and his family. Zeman has apparently not consented to having his health details publicised. 

The president's spokesman has published a tweet indicating that the opposition-led Senate is mounting a coup to try to deprive the president of his powers.