Is it time to change the Czech Constitution?

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

Appointing Jan Fisher the country’s new prime minister on Thursday, President Klaus expressed satisfaction with the speedy solution to the country’s political crisis. Yet the way in which this was achieved has sparked controversy between the country’s constitutional experts and Prague Castle.

Jan Fischer and Mirek Topolánek (right), photo: CTK
As of Thursday the Czech Republic is in the unusual position of having two prime ministers – outgoing prime minister Mirek Topolánek who has a cabinet but no mandate and the newly appointed Jan Fischer who has a mandate but no cabinet. So who in actual fact is the country’s prime minister at the present time? Constitutional experts say that – while there is no answer to this in the Czech Constitution – logically it must be outgoing PM Mirek Topolánek. For instance, if the prime minister was forced to announce a state of emergency for some reason or other that decision would have to be approved by the cabinet within 24 hours. Since only one of the prime ministers has a cabinet he must be considered the prime minister who is in charge of running the country.

However Constitutional experts are far more concerned about a different aspect of the proceedings – the fact that instead of selecting the country’s next prime minister President Klaus said he would appoint whoever brought him 101 signatures - a guarantee of majority support in the lower house. Analysts point out that in this way deputies in the lower house are pledging to support a government that has not even been set up. On Thursday Vojtěch Cepl, a former constitutional judge who had a lion’s share in producing the Czech Constitution slammed the President for not respecting it.

“The President simply cannot set down conditions of this kind – he must always proceed in line with the Czech Constitution – that is the basis of any democratic, legal state.”

The president was quick to fire back, telling Mr. Cepl and other critics that this was a political decision and advising them to stick to their field of expertise.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
In a way both sides have a point – the president did not act in line with the constitution, but then the constitution does not even recognize the term caretaker government – and the constitutional mechanisms for triggering early elections are so complicated that whenever the country needs them deputies have to approve a one-off constitutional amendment. So under the circumstances is it not time to change the constitution? A question for political analyst Jiří Pehe:

“Absolutely. I think there are several problems in the Czech Constitution, which was created very quickly at the end of 1992 when Czechoslovakia was falling apart and the Czech Republic, which was going to emerge on January 1st, needed its own constitution. The result of this need for speed is that there are some really weak points in the Czech Constitution and one of them is the inability to trigger early elections. There are various mechanisms which exist in various parliamentary democracies ranging from bigger powers for the president who can dissolve parliament under certain circumstances and call early elections - to the Polish model where the assembly can pass a law requiring a certain majority under which parliament is dissolved and then this motion goes to the president who – if he signs it – automatically triggers early elections. We do not have anything like that and I think it is really hindering the functioning of the Czech political system.”