Czech politicians mulling the possibility to limit the powers of the president

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek

Six months after the country’s first direct presidential election, many Czech politicians are already questioning the wisdom of having introduced a popular vote for the highest office in the land. The authoritarian manner in which President Miloš Zeman has handled the drawn-out political crisis has raised concerns for the country’s parliamentary democracy and opened up a debate on restricting the powers of the president.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek
It is not often that Czech politicians find common ground on any given issue, but President Miloš Zeman’s first few months in office have led politicians across the board to the conclusion that direct presidential elections may not have been such a good idea after all. As soon as Mr. Zeman took up office he made it clear that his mandate was stronger than that of any political party on the scene and that he intended to make full use of any powers the constitution gave him. The fact that the Czech Constitution is ambiguous on many points has made it easy for Mr. Zeman to stretch his powers to the limit and possibly even beyond. He was the first head of state to refuse to appoint a professor because he did not approve of his behaviour, he deadlocked the process of appointing new ambassadors by insisting on his own nominees and refusing to appoint others until they were approved by the foreign minister and, following the fall of the centre-right government, he appointed a prime minister of his own choice who then proceeded to form a government of people known to be loyal to the head of state. Jan Kysela, a leading expert on constitutional law, says all these problems were easily forseeable.

Jan Kysela,  photo: Czech Television
“Right from the start there was general consensus among legal experts that a direct presidential election was not a good move. If the Czech Republic has one persisting problem it is that it has a weak government and a directly elected president with a strong popular mandate is only going to exacerbate that problem. Introducing a direct presidential election has shifted the balance of power and therefore it is now important to consider the consequences of that move and to address the problem.”

The right-of-centre TOP 09 party, whose leader has accused the president of usurping power, has announced it is working on a Constitutional amendment that would limit the powers of the head-of-state. Among the proposed changes is one tailored after the German model where the president would have just one chance to nominate a prime minister designate, after which the prerogative would go to the lower house or its speaker. Other proposed changes have not so far been aired and will be debated with all political parties in the lower house in the hope of winning over 120 deputies for the proposed change. Both right and left wing parties have said they are open to debate. Constitutional lawyer Jan Kysela says their task will not be easy.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“By introducing a direct presidential election we have introduced a malfunctioning component, we have upset the system as a whole and the question is: where do we go from here. We could seek inspiration in France and create a semi-presidential system with a strong head of state, or –as seems to be the case – we could look to the German model for inspiration. However I am not sure that this would work with a directly elected head of state. So the question is how much can be achieved by partial amendments. You need to make sure that any changes made will not create further problems.”

Although many deputies are clearly aware of this danger there appears to be a sense of urgency to push through some amendment which would curb the president’s powers ahead of the 2014 general elections in May.