The Czech Constitution at 30: A symbol of stability with a few minor glitches

The document was written just before the breakup of Czechoslovakia, but experts say it has served its purpose well. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 19.12.2022 11:33:00 (updated on 19.12.2022) Reading time: 4 minutes

The Czech Constitution has just turned 30 years old. The document was adopted on Dec. 16, 1992, and came into force on Jan. 1, 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into two independent countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia, an event known as the Velvet Divorce. It replaced an earlier Constitution from 1960.

The document, with a preamble and eight chapters, outlines legislative, executive, and judicial powers, and establishes checks and balances. There are also shorter chapters on the Supreme Audit Office, the Czech National Bank, territorial self-government, and other institutions. In addition to the Constitution, the constitutional order of the Czech Republic is also laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and constitutional laws.

Over the years, the Constitution has been amended several times, most significantly in 2012 to allow for the direct election of the president by popular vote. Previously, the president was selected by a vote in both houses of the Czech parliament.

A time for reflection

On the anniversary of the adoption of the constitution, the Czech parliament held a two-day conference to reflect on the document’s legacy and also the future.

“The 30th anniversary of the Constitution of the modern Czech Republic is an opportunity to pause and a call for reflection,” Senate President Miloš Vystrčil said before the conference, adding “We should use this opportunity to summarize the experience and listen carefully to the evaluation of experts.”

“The political system defined by the written Constitution must be confronted with lived experience. Only this dialogue allows us to create an environment for the functioning of a modern and strong society in the spirit of our democratic traditions and principles,” Vystrčil added.

At the conference, he said the constitution “protects its citizens, guarantees basic human rights and freedoms to all, establishes equal basic obligations for all,” and also ”allows us not to rely only on the good qualities of people” but “complements the rule of the people with the rule of rules.”

Chamber of Deputies chairwoman Markéta Pekarová Adamová said the Constitution was the most important norm of our state, and that its anniversary is a good time to reflect on Czechia’s trajectory over the last three decades, as well as its future.

A success despite its brevity

At the conference, Constitutional Court chairman Pavel Rychetský said the fewer the amendments to the Czech Constitution, the more stable and more resistant to political and populist pressures the Constitution will be. He warned against rash changes.

With regard to the conditions under which it was coming into existence, he said it was an incredibly successful attempt. “When somebody sometimes criticizes it for its brevity, I consider it an advantage that it leaves space for interpretation,” Rychetský said, according to ČTK. The 5,500-word text is a compass that defines the fundamental values and shows the right direction, he added.

He said people repeatedly complained that something was not written in the constitution, that there were no deadlines, precise duties, or advice for what should be done if somebody misinterprets it or does not respect it. But all this is in the constitution if people read it with understanding and mainly common sense, he said. If somebody wants to distort the reality of life or law, not even a very detailed text can prevent it, he added.

Rychetský said he would welcome a constitutional amendment concerning the mandate of constitutional judges. He would like to see judges occupy their posts until their replacement was named, in order to avoid the court not functioning properly due to a lack of judges.

At the end of the second presidential mandate of Václav Klaus in 2013, the Constitutional Court was nearly paralyzed due to vacant posts.


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Critical views on the direct election of the president

The amendment providing for the direct election of the president was widely criticized at the conference.

Senate head Vystrčil said the introduction of direct presidential elections was not done very well with regard to the principle of checks and balances.

Former Senate chairman Petr Pithart also shared this view. He said it was a failure of the Senate that gave great legitimacy to the head of state but did not define the presidential powers more precisely.

A symbol of stability

Constitutional lawyer Jindřiška Syllová, who participated in the creation of the constitution, told ČTK that the Czech Constitution was the most stable constitution in Central Europe.

Lawyer Jan Kalvoda said the Constitution was modern and compatible with the Euro-Atlantic concept of fundamental law based on the principle of civic society and the universality of human rights.

He added that he agreed with the final text that was presented at the end of 1992. “It was a compromise, but I agreed with it. It did not contain some topics [such as] higher self-rule or a model of crisis management for the state,” he said.

Constitutional Court former deputy chairwoman Ivana Janů said at the conference that the Constitution should include an effective mechanism of control of the president who seeks to perform the presidential powers in a way that goes against the Constitution.

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