State of emergency: sidelined by Covid, President Zeman further delays swearing in Fiala as prime minister

Miloš Zeman, Petr Fiala

President Miloš Zeman is back in hospital. Hours after being discharged on Thursday – following six weeks of treatment for an undisclosed illness – he tested positive for Covid-19. The bitter irony is that his infection has further delayed the swearing in of a new prime minister, whose urgent priority is to bring the pandemic under control.

On October 10th, the very day after a broad coalition led by Petr Fiala won a stunning surprise victory by the slimmest of margins in parliamentary elections, President Zeman was rushed to hospital, where he spent weeks in an intensive care unit.

Fiala, the presumptive prime minister, has been waiting in the wings ever since, as debate raged over whether the infirmed president was competent to carry out his constitutional duty, and new coronaviruses cases began to soar.

Strictly speaking, like anyone else testing positive for Covid-19, Zeman should now remain in quarantine for 14 days, which means he should not accept visitors until December 10th, Fiala included.

But word from Prague Castle is that Zeman will conduct the ceremony in person on Sunday at 11 am, at his official residence in Lány.

Charles University professor and constitutional law expert Jan Kysela says there is nothing preventing President Zeman from swearing Fiala in as prime minister from his hospital bed, although the optics are far from ideal.

Miloš Zeman leaves hospital,  November 25,  2021 | Photo: Michaela Říhová,  ČTK

“It is among the most important acts the president can perform, among the most important moments for a prime minister, and of the entire political cycle.

“We connect the swearing-in with the great ceremonial Spanish Hall at Prague Castle. In any case, such a setting it is not necessary….

“Perhaps the president can be on one side of a screen and the prime minister on the other side. They could press their hands to the screen together, in lieu of a handshake, and that’s that. Or make another symbolic gesture.

“Of course, none of this is what the Constitution would presuppose.”

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Fiala, chairman of the centre-right Civic Democrat party chairman, was due to be sworn into office on Friday. That’s the same day on which perhaps the last major action of the outgoing government of Andrej Babiš comes into effect: another 30-day state of emergency, imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, yesterday the Czech Republic reported 27,717 new Covid-19 cases – presumably including that of President Zeman. It was the highest daily tally since the pandemic began, contributing to a staggering 131,731 cases registered over the past seven days, compared to 73,200 cases in entire month of October.

The state of emergency, which goes into effect at midnight, is the third imposed during the pandemic. Outgoing premier Andrej Babiš has ordered bars and clubs to close at 10 pm, banned drinking alcohol in public, shuttered just opened Christmas markets, and limited participation in sports and cultural events.

In this the “eleventh hour”, Babiš is also scrambling to put in place a law that would impose mandatory vaccinations for some groups, including healthcare professionals and people over 60 – a move his successor Petr Fiala opposes.