Why is it so hard to remove a Czech president?

Miloš Zeman, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio

A group of Czech senators recently accused President Miloš Zeman of gross violation of the Constitution and began drafting an official bill of impeachment. However, the chances of the liberal Senator 21 group finding the support to force out the head of state seem extremely slim. But why is it so hard to remove a Czech president?

Miloš Zeman,  photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio
Opposition lawmakers have accused President Miloš Zeman and his office of interfering in the country’s courts.

A legal analysis compiled by the NGO Rekonstrukce státu (Reconstruction of the State) puts the blame squarely on the president’s chancellor, Vratislav Mynář.

He has allegedly tried to influence judges in key courts to take decisions on cases relating to the Office of the President or in which President Miloš Zeman had a vested interest.

Liberal senator Václav Láska told Czech Radio that this was the proverbial last straw that breaks the camel’s back:

“When you take only individual actions of Mr. President, you may come to the conclusion that on their own they are on the edge of Constitutionality.

“But when you describe 20 such actions together it gives you a ground for a statement that the President does that on purpose, that his intention is to violate the Constitution, that he does not respect the Constitution.”

In order to send the charges against the president to the Constitutional Court, the senators behind them would need three-fifths of the vote in both houses of Parliament. It is extremely unlikely they will get that kind of support.

No Czech president has ever been formally challenged in this way. The Constitution even states: “The President of the Republic shall not be responsible for the performance of his duties.”

Why is it necessary to have such a formulation included in the basic legal document of a country? That’s a question I put to Professor Jan Kysela, a leading Constitutional expert at Charles University in Prague:

Photo: Tomáš Adamec
“The Czech Constitution continues in the tradition all the way back to the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy, whose constitution stated that the sovereign could not be held politically responsible. That is why we have had the same principle in all our constitutions.”

That does not mean, however, that the office of the president is legally “untouchable”. Article 65 of the Constitution states that the president can be charged with high treason or gross violation of the Constitution. Jan Kysela again:

“When we talk about responsibility in the context of the Constitution, it is necessary to make clear what we mean by that.

“So far, we have been talking about political responsibility. But there is the other side of the same coin: legal responsibility.

“So if the president violates or neglects a certain legal duty, we have a mechanism to hold him or her responsible. In other words, we also have the institution of impeachment as the English-speaking world knows it.

“In the Czech system, this procedure can be initiated by the Senate in the case of high treason or gross violation of the constitution.”

So how easy, or rather difficult, is it to impeach the president in the Czech Republic compared to in neighbouring Central European Countries? Professor Kysela continues.

“Let’s take Austria, Slovakia or some other Central European countries and their constitutions as examples.

“They define the responsibilities of the president in a similar way as we do in the Czech Republic.

“They also include charges of high treason and gross violation of the Constitution as potential reasons for his removal from office.

Jan Kysela,  photo: Czech Television
“However, in Austria and Slovakia the constitution also makes it possible to hold the president responsible for his or her policies.

“If Parliament does not like them, they can initiate impeachment, even though it is a rather complex process that includes a general vote.

"The reason for this is that if the people elected the president, only the people can remove him or her from office. In both cases, the impeachment is started by the Parliament.”

So while a bill of impeachment is being drafted by senators, the level of support it would need in both chambers means that President Miloš Zeman probably won’t be losing any sleep over the matter.