Czech Republic in post-vote limbo after president takes sick

Milos Zeman admitted to intensive care, raising risk of political vacuum following shock defeat for prime minister in election.

Czech President Milos Zeman was rushed to hospital shortly after a meeting with Prime Minister and ally Andrej Babis [File: Martin Divisek/EPA]

The Czech Republic has been plunged into uncertainty after President Milos Zeman was rushed to hospital a day after his ally, populist billionaire Prime Minister Andrej Babis, suffered a shock defeat in the country’s general election.

The 77-year-old president, who plays a critical role in nominating any future prime minister, was taken by ambulance to Prague’s Central Military Hospital on Sunday shortly after meeting Babis. He received treatment in an intensive care unit.

On Monday, a spokeswoman for the hospital said Zeman was in a stable condition.

Miroslav Zavoral, the hospital’s director, said the president, who has liver problems according to local media and uses a wheelchair because of neuropathy in his legs, was admitted due to complications related to an undisclosed chronic condition.

“We know the diagnosis precisely, which allows us to target treatment,” Zavoral said, adding that he did not have the president’s approval to disclose details of the diagnosis.

In the Czech Republic, the president leads talks with party leaders after elections to find a workable majority. Under the constitution, his authority to appoint the prime minister passes to the speaker of the lower house if the presidential position is vacated.

Babis’s centrist ANO party narrowly lost the parliamentary election held on Friday and Saturday to the centre-right Together coalition.

Together and the liberal Pirates/Mayors coalition between them won 108 seats in the 200-seat lower house and said they intended to form a government.

However, while Babis has conceded that Together won more votes as a coalition, he is still hoping to hold on to power, saying, “If the president authorises me to do so, I will lead talks on forming a cabinet.”

The president had cast his ballot in his official residence because of health problems less than a month after he spent eight nights at the military hospital.

Blow to populism

Under the constitution, the president can appoint anyone as prime minister and instruct them to nominate a cabinet, which must then face a vote of confidence in the lower house within a month of its appointment.

Zeman had said prior to the election that he would appoint the leader of the biggest winning individual party, not a coalition, to try to form a government.

This would be Babis, since ANO won the most votes of any party.

Zeman, an ally of 67-year-old Babis, has not commented on his next steps since the election results.

Petr Fiala (centre), the leader of Civic Party (ODS) and Together’s (SPOLU) coalition candidate for prime minister, speaks at a press conference at the SPOLU movement election event in Prague after the coalition narrowly won the election [Stringer/EPA]

Forming a government usually takes weeks or months, and no appointments are possible before the new lower house convenes, some time within a month after the election.

Babis currently leads a minority government with the Social Democrats, which was until recently tacitly backed by the Communist Party that ruled the former Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1989.

But the Communists and the Social Democrats failed to win enough votes to get into parliament.

Analysts saw the election result as a blow to populism.

“It’s a victory not only for the Czech Republic, but for the whole of Europe,” Jiri Priban from Cardiff Law School said on Czech TV.

“It’s a proof that even if the populists can’t be entirely defeated, their advance can be stopped and reversed,” he added.

Babis, a food, chemicals and media mogul, is facing police charges over alleged EU subsidy fraud and the bloc’s dismay over his conflict of interest as a businessman and a politician.

Last weekend, the Pandora Papers investigation showed he had used money from his offshore firms to finance the purchase of property in southern France in 2009, including a chateau.

He has denied any wrongdoing and condemned the allegations as a smear campaign.

Source: News Agencies