As President Zeman celebrates two years in office, lawmakers debate proposal to curb his powers

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK

As President Miloš Zeman prepares to celebrate two years in office with a grand ball at Prague Castle, Czech lawmakers are debating a government-proposed bill to curb his powers. But, while the president has repeatedly come under fire from all sides for pushing his powers to the limit and beyond, curbing them may not prove easy.

Miloš Zeman, photo: CTK
When the first-ever directly elected head of state in the country’s history took office two years ago he made it clear that he would not be satisfied with laying wreaths on public holidays but intended to influence Czech politics as far as his powers allow. And in the eyes of many he has gone far beyond that, speaking for himself, stirring controversy and drawing negative media attention both at home and abroad.

The most recent incident occurred during a debate with the public when a disgruntled citizen complained about the central bank’s forex interventions launched by the central bank in the autumn of 2013 to prevent deflation. The president said he fully agreed with the complaint saying that the bank’s ill-advised policy had devalued the savings of all Czech citizens by 6 to 10 percent, but that when the term of the bank’s present governor Miroslav Singer expired next year he would choose a successor who would rectify Mr. Singer’s mistakes and who unlike Mr. Singer would be pro-euro. It was not an empty boast. President Zeman is to appoint four out of seven members of the central bank board, including its governor, before his term in office expires.

Miroslav Singer, photo: Filip Jandourek
While the bank declined to comment, critics pointed out that the power of appointing members of the central bank board should not be in the hands of a single official – albeit the president.

The Sobotka government has already moved to try to curb the president’s powers drafting a bill which would restrict his influence by giving the Senate the right to veto bank board nominees chosen by the head of state. The bill would also introduce tighter rules for appointing a new cabinet. Mr. Zeman, whose relationship with the prime minister has been strained, stalled for 95 days before appointing him to the post, despite the fact that a coalition deal had been reached.

Minister Jiří Dienstbier who heads the government’s Legislative Council, which drafted the bill, says that the introduction of direct presidential elections naturally boosted the president’s authority and that since in many areas the Czech Constitution relies on cooperation between the head of state the government and Parliament it is essential to clarify the division of powers of the president and other state officials in order to maintain the parliamentary character of democracy in the country.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
However such an amendment would mean a change of the constitutional order which requires a three fifth majority in both houses of Parliament and it is not clear if the government would find sufficient support for the proposal. Although many politicians have clashed or disagreed with President Zeman in the last two years they warn it would not be good to be overhasty and change the constitutional order because of the actions of one head of state, especially when, given the pace of legislative changes, his term in office could well have expired by the time the changes go into effect.