News of President Zeman’s grave condition clarifies post-election picture

Miloš Zeman

Senate chair Miloš Vystrčil on Monday ended weeks of speculation regarding the health of Czech President Miloš Zeman. Citing a report by the president’s chief physician, he said Mr. Zeman was unable to perform his presidential duties and the prognosis for an early recovery was highly uncertain. In the wake of general elections, the news has sparked intensive debate on a possible transfer of the president’s powers.

After weeks of speculation regarding the president’s state of health, fueled by Prague Castle’s adamant refusal to disclose any information, Speaker of the Senate Miloš Vystrčil finally broke the tension on Monday. The Senate chair, who requested a clear stand from the president’s chief physician as regards his physical and mental capacity to perform his duties, cited from the report at a closely watched press briefing on Monday.

“According to doctors at the Central Military Hospital Miloš Zeman is currently not able to perform any of his presidential duties. In view of the character of his illness, the long-term prognosis is highly uncertain and the chances of recovery in the coming weeks are slim.”

Miloš Vystrčil | Photo: Ondřej Deml,  ČTK

The news confirmed suspicions that officials close to the president, primarily the head of his office Vratislav Mynář and his spokesman Jiří Ovčáček, had created a smoke screen around the head of state reminiscent of communist practices and were playing for time in the hope that he might recover.

Although the nature of the president’s illness remains secret, the statement that he is unable to perform his duties in the wake of the country’s general elections where he has a key role, has jump- started a debate on the possibility of activating Article 66 of the Czech Constitution on a transfer of the president’s  powers. Under the article in question, the president’s powers would be divided between the prime minister and the heads of the upper and lower chambers. Mr. Zeman would officially remain head of state and could take up his duties again if his health allows.

In any case, the news regarding the president’s state of health have clarified the emerging picture in the wake of the elections. Although President Zeman, who is seen as a close ally of Andrej Babiš, could have tasked him with forming a government, and stretched his powers to keep him in office, his inability to perform his duties and Babiš’ acceptance of his defeat should speed up the formation of a new government. The two election alliances, which challenged the prime minister’s ANO party in the elections, have already signed a memorandum on a future coalition with Civic Democratic Party leader Petr Fiala slated to be the country’s next prime minister.

Andrej Babiš | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

Meanwhile, outgoing Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, who was closely beaten in October’s general elections, said on Monday that he was ready to go into the opposition and open the way to a new government. He said he had been unaware of the gravity of the president’s condition and called on the head of the President’s Office to resign over the way he had handled the matter.

The outgoing Chamber of Deputies will disband on October 21, and the new chamber will meet on November 8 for the first time. The outgoing Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, Radek Vondráček, expressed the view that if the president’s health did not improve by that time Article 66 should be activated by the new Chamber of Deputies.