President’s use of power an issue again as he assumes a leading role in the government crisis

Václav Klaus

As the crisis in the Czech government has played out over the last two weeks, the country’s President, Václav Klaus, has taken on a key role in how events have unfolded. The president leapt into the turmoil at the point where he was asked to approve the departure of three ministers from the Public Affairs party; his refusal to do so has again raised the question of whether Mr Klaus exceeds the duties of his office or makes the tough decisions that the country needs.

Václav Klaus
Among the left-wing opposition there has been little doubt over the impropriety with which President Václav Klaus has thrown a wrench into the works as the government struggles with the on-going crisis. The deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Jiří Dienstbier Jr, summed up the party’s position on the Mr Klaus last week:

“We have witnessed again and again how the president attempts to usurp more authority than the constitution allows him. When the Prime Minister proposes the dismissal of ministers from Public Affairs, it is the constitutional duty of the country’s president to execute that proposal, and to do so without unnecessary delay.”

Mr Klaus has indeed vexed the opposition, and even Prime Minister Petr Nečas and others in the government stalling what they seemed to think would be easy gambit: the prime minister wanted to purge key coalition members who he thought were a threat to the working of his government, and he has the constitutional right to do so. The president however has kept Mr Nečas in check ever since then, demanding a plan for what comes next. For his view on the stalemate I spoke with political analyst as well as frequent critic of the president Jiří Pehe.

Jiří Dienstbier Jr
“Well I think the president’s behaviour has to be seen on two levels. At the political level, I think he has done what one would expect from the head of state, that is, he is trying to find a solution and he is doing it perhaps even at the cost of bypassing the constitution. So I think that on this level he is doing what most people would expect the president to do in a situation which appears to be highly unstable. At the constitutional level, I think that it is more problematic, because if the president is really skirting the constitution in a way that raises many questions, and certainly he has created a situation in which a lot of politicians say that he may have violated the constitution, that certainly is not good for Czech democracy in general, because the president should not be freely accused of violating the constitution.”

Do you think that he has hurt the government, or perhaps Petr Nečas, irreparably by bypassing him in this way and not allowing him to deal with the repercussions of having expelled his ministers on his own?

Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
“Well I think that certainly the president has hurt Mr Nečas’ credibility. By taking over, he has made Mr Nečas look rather weak and put him in a subordinate position in this crisis. On the other hand, one could argue that he has saved Nečas, because if he had simply decided to follow Nečas’ request to dismiss the Public Affairs ministers then the government would have collapsed, because I can’t imagine that Public Affairs would have stayed in government under such circumstances, and that in turn would probably lead to the fall of the coalition and then early elections. So, in a way, one could also argue that by pushing Nečas to look for a compromise, Klaus might have saved his political career, at least for the foreseeable future.”

As regards the constitutional legality of the president’s manoeuvre, the head of the Institute for State and Law, Jan Bárta, believes the president is neither in breach of the constitution nor setting a dangerous precedent, but indeed is doing exactly what the constitution expects of him.

“It is on purpose that the constitution sets no timeframe. This is a constitutional space for the president to influence political negotiations between the parties. It is obvious that the president’s wish now is to put the parties into some agreement. If you set a constitutional timeframe, of seven days for example, you would at the same time be saying ‘you have only seven days to convince someone to come to an agreement’; on the eighth or ninth day it would be too late, even if the solution were reasonable. I think the president has adequate time until he sees that an agreement is impossible.”

Radim Bureš
Another question is whether any of the president’s moves in the course of this crisis fit in to what Mr Dienstbier referred to as his “numerous attempts to usurp more authority”. What is not debated is that Mr Klaus has politicians that he likes and does not like, and he will try to place them in government positions, as was recently the case with Ladislav Bátora in the Ministry of Education. The daily Mladá fronta Dnes on Monday writes that may now be the case with the position of Interior Minister, which is at the centre of the coalition row, and where Mr Klaus would reportedly like to see his own chief of security, Radim Bureš – a scenario that would lead to even more questions and controversy over this president’s role in the system of governance, should it come to pass.