Outgoing Czech president withdraws threat to pre-emptively appoint constitutional court chief

Outgoing Czech president withdraws threat to pre-emptively appoint constitutional court chief
President Milos Zeman (left) and failed presidential candidate Andrej Babis. / bne IntelliNews
By Albin Sybera February 8, 2023

Czech outgoing President Milos Zeman has confirmed he won’t make a pre-emptive appointment of the head of the Constitutional Court. Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala told local media he talked Zeman out of the controversial move at their meeting on Sunday, and on Monday, Zeman confirmed he won’t make the pre-emptive appointment.

Zeman had said he was considering appointing the new head of the Constitutional Court before stepping down in March and before the current term of Pavel Rychetsky expires in August. Rychetsky, though a former minister in Zeman's cabinet in the 1990s, has become a tough critic of the president.

The move was seen as Zeman's way of ensuring that he maintained some influence over the key post after he steps down in March, and could have led to a drawn-out constitutional dispute, experts warned. Incoming president Petr Pavel had said he intended to appoint his own candidate, setting up a potential conflict.

In an interview with CNN Prima News at the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia, where Zeman met his Slovak counterpart Zuzana Caputova in what is Zeman’s final visit abroad as Czech president, Zeman explained that he changed his mind after criticism from presidential candidates and his predecessor Vaclav Klaus.   

“I have primarily taken into account that neither one of the presidential candidates [left in the January elections runoff] liked it, because they felt it was taking away their powers,” Zeman told CNN Prima News. He added that another reason was that “his friend and former president Vaclav Klaus commented critically” on Zeman’s plan.

A veteran politician of Czech post-communist politics who was also in charge of the government between 1998-2002, Zeman insisted the appointment would have been legal despite experts arguing that a sitting president should make the appointment when Ryhetsky's term ends. He referred to his change of mind as “a kind farewell gesture”.

During his 10-year-long tenure at Prague Castle, Zeman has a long history of controversial moves in which he pushed his constitutional rights to the limit or even beyond. In June 2013, he appointed a technocrat government led by his former minister Jiri Rusnok, and he maintained it in power until January 2014, even though it never won a vote of confidence.

Zeman has also tried to pursue his own foreign policy, involving closer links with Russia and China, though this has since collapsed.

Former army chief of staff and former chairman of the Nato Military Command retired general Petr Pavel is to succeed Zeman after the inauguration on March 8 after Pavel beat populist billionaire and Zeman’s preferred candidate Andrej Babis in a landslide victory.

Pavel promises a clean break with Zeman's administration. He has been very critical of Zeman’s outgoing staff, pointing out their controversial links to Kremlin and several high-profile corruption affairs and called for an “in-depth” probe of the presidential offices before he takes these over.  

During the meeting with Caputova, Zeman also said he hopes Pavel would maintain Czechia’s good relationship with Slovakia, and Caputova responded that she shares close views with Pavel. Caputova came in person to Pavel’s campaign team's headquarters as it was clear the retired general was on course to victory in the presidential race.