Presidential ill health, police raids and corruption allegations, some involving caretaker Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, have thrown the Czech Republic into a surreal political crisis.
The jarring turn of events could not have come at a worse time — the unnerved country is already in the grip of an acute energy crunch, like its European neighbors, and it is facing an alarming uptick in coronavirus infections.
The Czech Republic has been in post-election limbo since Tuesday, when a Senate committee stripped President Miloš Zeman of his powers. The decision came after doctors at a military hospital in Prague, the Czech capital, who are treating the president for liver failure, said Zeman was “incapable of fulfilling any of his working responsibilities.”
The 77-year-old Zeman was due to name a new prime minister to head a coalition government following elections earlier this month in which the populist billionaire Babiš’ Action for Dissatisfied Citizens party won the most votes, but lost overall control to two opposition blocs, led by Petr Fiala. Babiš’ defeat was put down to the willingness of opposition parties to put aside their ideological differences and join to drive the populist leader out of power.
On Wednesday the state prosecutor added to the swirling political mix by requesting the Chamber of Deputies, the lower chamber of Parliament, remove Babiš’ immunity as a lawmaker so he can be prosecuted for fraud and misuse of $2 million of European Union funds involving a spa resort owned by members of his own family.
Shortly before the elections Babiš featured in the so-called Pandora Papers, a huge trove of documents detailing the secret offshore financial dealings of hundreds of politicians, public officials and celebrities. The papers published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists showed how Babiš had used shell companies to buy property, including a chateau on the French Riviera in 2009, prompting money-laundering and tax-evasion accusations from opposition politicians. He has denied the Pandora allegations, saying he has done nothing wrong and that the charges against him are just smears.
“I think that the request by the Prague prosecutor to lift Babiš’ immunity is an interesting development, simply because if the prosecutor had decided that Babiš should not be sent to court, should not be prosecuted, he would probably not ask for this,” political scientist Jiří Pehe told Prague Radio midweek. “His move seems to suggest that he is seriously thinking about sending Mr. Babiš to court,” he added.
In the meantime, if the Senate and House of Deputies confirm the committee’s vote to strip Zeman of his authority, some of his powers will be transferred to Babiš and one of his political allies, Parliament Speaker Radek Vondráček. In theory they would then decide who should be the next prime minister.
Babiš has promised to name Fiala, and he may have his eyes set more on running for the presidency to replace Zeman than in trying to hang on as prime minster, some Czech commentators say.
Zeman was a onetime Babiš ally, but there are signs their alliance is breaking up. The Czech Republic’s second-largest newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes, which is owned by Babiš, headlined a story this week saying the prime minister is aiming to “clean Zeman’s men out” of power.
Babiš has publicly demanded the resignation of Zeman’s chief aide, Vratislav Mynář, following allegations he and others in the presidential entourage had been trying to conceal the true state of the president’s health. Police have said they are investigating the allegations, which they have described as “criminal offenses against the republic.”
“The police of the Czech Republic will initiate an investigation into a possible illegal act, in which signs of criminal offenses against the republic can be seen,” Czech police tweeted. It is unclear what offenses may be involved but local media say the crimes could include treason and subversion. Mynář told reporters in Prague midweek that no laws had been broken and he criticized the Senate committee for its vote to strip his boss of his presidential powers.
The president’s wife, Ivana Zemanová, said Thursday that people should stop speculating about her husband’s illness as “treatment will take time.” Mynář remains defiant, telling reporters in Prague Thursday, “The President of the Republic is Miloš Zeman, who appointed me to the position and is the only one who has the right to dismiss me.”
But Babiš told iDNES.cz, a Czech news site, midweek that Mynář should resign, and that if doesn’t he would remove him after presidential powers are transferred. Parliament will vote on the issue in the first week of November.
Czechs have been left reeling at the twists and turns of the bizarre chain of political events.
Like other Europeans they are struggling to recover from a pandemic that seems far from over. Coronavirus infections have started to surge again in the country with over 3,000 new cases recorded on both Tuesday and Wednesday, doubling the tallies seen on the corresponding days last week.
Health Minister Adam Vojtěch, announced new pandemic restrictions Wednesday, which will come into force next week. They include mandatory mask-wearing at work and checks for digital vaccination certificates to enter bars and restaurants.