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Will sick Czech President Zeman be removed from office?

October 27, 2021

Czech President Milos Zeman was hospitalized weeks ago, yet refuses to step down. Now, parliament is considering his — temporary — removal from office.

President Milos Zeman
President Milos Zeman, pictured here in 2017 at the UN in New YorkImage: Getty Images/AF/D. Emmert

Each year on October 28, Czech people celebrate Czechoslovakia Day, a national holiday marking the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918. It is also the day when Czech heads of state award the Order of the White Lion to honor individuals for their outstanding service to the country. It is the highest order in the Czech Republic. Traditionally, a list of potential recipients is collated and signed by the president ahead of October 28, before being ratified by the prime minister.

When Prime Minister Andrej Babis received the 2021 list of laureates, however, the document bore only a presidential stamp, rather than an actual signature. That's because 77-year-old President Milos Zeman, has been in intensive care at Prague's Military University Hospital since October 10.

Prime Minister Babis' ANO party lost the October 8-9 parliamentary elections to two center-right party alliances. They now have a majority of 108 out of 200 seats in the chamber of deputies. At this stage, the constitution calls for the president to nominate a new prime minister. President Zeman, however, appears to be in no physical state to do so.

The presidential office, meanwhile, has been putting out statements downplaying his health problems. It claims Zeman is fit to work, which is demonstrably false as he is being treated in in intensive care. Citing reliable hospital sources, Czech daily Denik N reports that Zeman is suffering from a severe liver disease.

Doctors declare Zeman unfit

On October 18, Milos Vystrcil, who serves as president of the senate, published a report by Prague's Military University Hospital on Milos Zeman's health status. The report, signed the hospital director and the president's chief physician, General Miroslav Zavoral, leaves no doubt the head of state is currently unfit to serve.

Senate head Milos Vystrcil
Milos Vystrcil is head of the Czech senateImage: Michal Krumphanzl/CTK/dpa/picture alliance

"Milos Zeman, president of the republic, is currently unable to fulfill the duties of his office," Vystrcil said at a press conference. Referring to the medical report, he said "Prague Military University Hospital cannot issue a reliable long-term prognosis on the health status of President Milos Zeman given the kind of physical ailment, a return to office in coming weeks therefore appeals highly unlikely."

Article 66

According to article 66 of the Czech constitution, presidents may be removed from office if health problems prevent them from serving. Both parliamentary chambers must, however, agree to this step. Senate president Vystrcil has announced his chamber will move to trigger article 66.

Center-right parties now in control of the chamber of deputies, led by Civic Democratic Party (ODS) head Petr Fiala, have come out in support. Fiala stands to succeed Prime Minister Andrej Babis. But for now, Fiala has called for patience. On Facebook, he said an updated hospital assessment will be ready in early November, which will determine whether or not the president is actually fit to serve.

Presidential sick note

Political science professor Tomas Lebeda of Palacky University Olomouc says the center-right parties newly in charge are right to wait and see. "This is a game over public trust," says Lebeda. "It will revolve around political parties forging a consensus over whether Milos Zeman really is unfit to serve in office, as the doctors are saying, or if a political dispute will arise over the matter."

"This could develop into a very dangerous game, further polarizing Czech society," warns Lebeda. Czech constitutional law expert Jan Kysela of Charles University, Prague, told Czech media that triggering article 66 will only temporarily relieve a president from his or her duties. Once the head of state recovers, he or she could return to power. Until then, presidential powers will be collectively excised by the prime minster, senate and chamber of deputy presidents, Kysela said.

"Article 66 of the constitution triggers a kind of presidential sick note, granting the head of state a hiatus to receive treatment," Kysela added. The president is not removed from office per se, unless the head of state chooses to do so. Zeman's presidential term ends in March 2023.

"That is why article 66 must be triggered; otherwise, the Czech Republic will not have anyone taking on the role of head of state, although the president is still alive," Kysela said. "No state can afford such a situation."

This article was translated from German.

Portrait of a man with blond hair, wearing a white shirt and a blue and black checked jacket
Lubos Palata Correspondent for the Czech Republic and Slovakia, based in Prague