William Nattrass

The missing president and the Czech Republic’s sordid power struggle

The missing president and the Czech Republic’s sordid power struggle
The presidential office shows a video of Milos Zemen signing a document in hospital (photo: Getty)
Text settings

Czech President Miloš Zeman has never been one to do things by halves. His mastery in the art of consuming inordinate quantities of alcohol is the stuff of legend, while his formidable smoking once led another senior politician to complain that he felt like a piece of smoked meat in the president’s presence.

Two years ago, at the age of 75, Zeman took the prudent step of cutting down to only two packets of cigarettes a day – leading some to hope that his health might improve. Yet it’s now feared the colourful president’s lifestyle may finally be catching up with him. Zeman was rushed to a central Prague hospital on October 10, the day after a nail-biting Czech election was won by an opposition pro-EU coalition.

The hospital has since refused to break patient confidentiality laws by revealing details of Zeman’s condition – inevitably sending the rumour mill into overdrive. A variety of sources close to the president have claimed the hospitalisation is the result of severe liver problems. This weekend doctors claimed Zeman’s condition had improved; but others say this is only because he is being fed through a tube having supposedly suffered severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms after being admitted to intensive care.

Article 66 of the Czech constitution allows for the transfer of powers in the event that the president becomes incapacitated. With Zeman required by the constitution to take centre stage in the post-election coalition negotiations – by accepting the resignation of the outgoing administration and asking one of the party leaders to try to form a new government – this article is now being talked about with ever greater urgency. And suspicions are rife that those close to Zeman have been conniving to conceal the president’s potential inability to carry out his functions.

Zeman’s aides have adopted a secretive stance over recent weeks, evocatively described by one Czech constitutional expert as reminiscent of ‘oriental despotism.’ On one occasion, as journalists clamoured at the hospital gates for news, all the president’s men would disclose was that Mr Zeman had enjoyed apricot rolls for lunch that day and had ordered the wine sausages with mashed potato for tomorrow.

On October 14, the head of Zeman’s staff Vratislav Mynář brandished a document signed by Zeman in hospital, convening the next parliament for its first session in early November. The document was presented as proof that all was well, and that talk of a potential transfer of power was premature.

Yet the move had the opposite effect. An anonymous criminal complaint was almost immediately filed claiming the president’s signature had been forged. Zeman’s doctors meanwhile exploded in rage because the Speaker of the House, Radek Vondráček, had apparently been smuggled onto the premises to witness the signing of the document without permission at a time when visits to Zeman were forbidden.

Visions were conjured up of Zeman’s aides pulling the strings behind the scenes – directing the hand of the incapacitated president in order to retain their own loose grip over the course of events. A week later, a video was presented showing Zeman signing the key document in his hospital bed; but the damage to public trust had already been done. Aptly, the video saw Zeman quoting in German from Machiavelli’s The Prince while affixing his signature to the page: ‘He who wins time, wins everything.’

If Article 66 is triggered, time will have well and truly run out for Zeman and his powerful aides – a tantalising prospect for members of the victorious Czech opposition coalition. Zeman is a close ally of the controversial outgoing prime minister Andrej Babiš, with both adopting increasingly Eurosceptic and traditionalist rhetoric. The overtly pro-EU, pro-western tendencies of the incoming administration meanwhile sit uneasily with Zeman’s preference for closer economic ties with eastern powers, such as Russia and China.

Prior to the election, there were fears that Zeman would try to keep Babiš in power whatever the outcome of the vote. Indeed, Babiš revealed that just before Zeman’s hospitalisation, the president assured him that he would still get two opportunities to try to form a government ahead of the opposition coalition, potentially causing significant delays to the transfer of power.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the opportunity to remove Zeman from the picture has been seized upon with (respectful) eagerness by the opposition. The Senate, led by one of the victorious opposition parties, has already put the wheels in motion for the triggering of Article 66. The Czech media meanwhile has been deluged with assurances from constitutional experts that vital post-election negotiations can go ahead without Zeman’s involvement.

Yet rather than providing clarity, cracks in the constitution have thrown Czech politics into a state of limbo. For the time being, the country has no effective legislature, while the highest functions in the land are held by a man declared by his own doctors as unfit to wield them. In this tense environment, it's no surprise that the ailing president's influence has itself becoming the subject of an intense and sordid struggle for power.