Czech president tests the limits of his powers

Miloš Zeman, photo: Filip Jandourek, ČRo

President Zeman’s decision to replace the outgoing centre-right government with a caretaker administration until scheduled or early elections has evoked an outcry on the Czech political scene, with many accusing the head of state of wanting to usurp more powers than he rightly has under the Czech Constitution. So is Mr. Zeman carving out a semi-presidential system for himself, as some foreign media suggest? A question Radio Prague put to political analyst Jiři Pehe.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Filip Jandourek,  ČRo
“I do not think that it is really an attempt to create a semi-presidential system, I would see it more as an attempt to actually be in control for four or five months or maybe longer until regular elections and enforce some decisions which may be strategic for Miloš Zeman and his allies, some economic decisions and perhaps even a decision on the completion of the Temelin nuclear power plant. “

Would he be able to do that? What would be the powers of such a government?

“Well, we know that President Zeman interprets his constitutional powers in a rather extensive way and he is very skillful in pushing the limits of the Constitution, so he knows that a government he names –disregarding the will of political parties in the lower chamber – in fact has the same powers as a government that has won a vote of confidence. Some of us may argue that it would not be a fully legitimate government, but from the Constitutional point of view it is a government that can make all the decisions that a regular government could make and in that respect I am sure Zeman will be using it to push through some of his priorities.”

Is there anything that political parties can do to prevent this happening?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  ČRo
“Political parties can do what they could have done in the past – and unfortunately did not – when president Klaus was exceeding some of his constitutional powers –ie. they should spring into action and for example in this particular situation counter Zeman’s offensive by dissolving the lower chamber of Parliament and triggering early elections. That would certainly not prevent Zeman from having his government – a presidential government – for three or four months before we get to the early elections, but it would be pre-emptive in many ways and it would prevent Zeman having this government for almost a year and getting done a lot of things that otherwise a fully legitimate, politically elected government should do. “

But once the lower house dissolves itself, there will just be President Zeman, his interim government and a left-dominated Senate. Would that not significantly increase his powers for the time being?

“Well, we can be certain that if the lower chamber of Parliament dissolves itself then that will – for two or three months before we get to early elections – increase Zeman’s powers, but on the other hand he has already by-passed Parliament anyway so the best thing to do under these circumstances is really to find the fastest way possible to early elections and that may be the best way to actually limit some of the damage that the president is causing with his actions. ”