What happens if the Czech president is incapacitated during a general election?

President Miloš Zeman’s current health has put a spotlight on the lack of a ready successor to fill the office.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 08.10.2021 19:00:00 (updated on 08.10.2021) Reading time: 4 minutes

Current president's health has not been made public

The current Czech president, Miloš Zeman, has been in poor health – and was hospitalized in September for dehydration and exhaustion – causing many people to speculate about a possible crisis should his condition worsen before a new government is formed following the election, which began today.

The Czech Republic is a fairly new country and has yet to face the crisis of the death or incapacity of a president while in office. The loss coinciding with lower house elections would create a complicated situation, as the Czech Republic does not have a vice president to step in to fill the role.

The president plays a significant role in the formation of the next government after an election. The president chooses the prime minister-designate and tells them to form a cabinet. The president then appoints the cabinet, once one is formed. The president has two attempts to initiate the cabinet formation, a possible third attempt is up to the lower house chairperson.

The Czech constitution does outline what will happen if the president becomes incapacitated, resigns, or dies and a new president has not been elected or sworn in. If the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate decide to do so, the performance of the majority of functions pass to the prime minister, currently Andrej Babiš, head of the ANO party.

These duties include representing the state, negotiating treaties, acting as commander in chief of the armed forces, granting state honors, recruiting ambassadors, appointing judges, and granting amnesty, among others.

Other presidential functions would fall to the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, currently Radek Vondráček, also a member of the ANO party. These functions include appointing and removing the prime minister and other cabinet members, convening meetings of the Chamber of Deputies, dissolving the Chamber of Deputies, appointing judges and other officials to the Constitutional Court, appointing board members to the Czech National Bank (ČNB), and announcing elections to the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

The speaker can also instruct the government whose resignation they have accepted (or a government whose authority the speaker has withdrawn) to perform its functions on a provisional basis, pending the appointment of a new government.

While the scenario of not having a president during a general election is not spelled out specifically, it would seem that the speaker of the lower house would oversee the formation of a new government, or ask the previous government to continue until a new president could take office.

Dr. Miroslav Zavoral, the president’s personal physician, visited Zeman on Oct. 7, but the details of the examination have not been made public.

On the advice of the physician, Zeman did not go to the polls but instead cast his paper ballot on Friday at the presidential manor at Lány, Central Bohemia. His spokesman tweeted photos of the president putting his ballot in the box. Previously, Zeman voted at a polling station at a Prague elementary school.

Zeman also canceled planned media appearances, such as the Sunday post-election debate on CNN Prima TV. Presidential spokesman Jiří Ovčáček has not ruled out that a planned post-election meeting with current Prime Minister Andrej Babiš will also be postponed.

“Zeman has obeyed the recommendation [about voting]. Based on Zavoral's recommendation, his other program, too, will be adapted,” Ovčáček said.

The Presidential Office claims that Zeman’s health condition is not serious. Its representatives said Zeman is getting prepared for the developments and negotiations after the weekend general election, and the Oct. 28 annual ceremony during which he gives out state awards.

Presidential Office sees no reason for abdication

Ovčáček told Radio Z on Oct. 8 that Zeman has been in “a state of the illness” for 14 days, but his current condition does not limit him in the execution of his constitutional duties, and there is no reason for his abdication. Ovčáček also rejected the notion that the Presidential Office should release details about Zeman's health.

“The president must regain his strength. We must realize that Mr. President is 77 years old; at this old age, some ailments must simply appear. The president receives top-quality care,” Ovčáček said, adding that he would like to dissipate various rumors about the president’s condition.

According to Ovčáček, Zeman’s current condition does not limit the execution of his constitutional duties, and Zeman is prepared to contribute to the formation of a new government after the general election.

In September, Zeman, 77, spent eight days in the Central Military Hospital (ÚVN). The Presidential Office said this was a convalescence stay in which he had several check-ups and infusions.

Since then, Zeman has been at Lany, where he had some working meetings with the government and opposition leaders and received Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

The line between privacy and the right to know

The former head of the Prague Castle protocol, Jindřich Forejt, told Radio Impuls that it is not legally possible to conceal the death or incapacity of the president. While the medical condition is private, the public has a right to know whether they are able to perform their function.

According to Forejt, there is a line between the right to privacy and the public interest.

”Every public official who enters a public space surrenders to the service of their homeland and must agree that their right to privacy will not be 100 percent. Whether they are capable of performing their function is essential, and we should know it,” he said.

He also thinks that legislators should in the future better formulate when and under what circumstances the health status of constitutional officials should be disclosed. Such legislation is currently lacking in the Czech Republic.  

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