Czech Ballot Turmoil Deepens as President Is Rushed to Hospital

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PRAGUE — Czech President Milos Zeman was rushed to the hospital over complications related to his chronic health problems, a development that may snarl government negotiations after his ally suffered a shock election defeat.

Zeman, 77, suffers from diabetes and neuropathy and uses a wheelchair. A staunch supporter of Russia and advocate of deepening ties with China, he holds the power to pick who will lead talks to form a new government in the European Union and NATO state following the parliamentary ballot that concluded on Saturday.

His closest political ally, Prime Minister Andrej Babis, unexpectedly lost the vote by a razor-thin margin to the conservative opposition alliance Spolu, which has vowed to oust Babis from power.

With a combined majority in the assembly, Spolu and its favored ruling partner urged the president to give them a chance to form the next government.

But Zeman doesn’t have to respect their wish, and has repeatedly vowed to give Babis the first shot at coalition talks because his ANO party remains the strongest single force in the legislature. If Zeman is unable to perform his duties, the right to name the cabinet is transferred to the speaker of the lower house, in which Babis’s rivals will hold more than half the seats.

“I am convinced that the election results are unambiguous,” Spolu leader Petr Fiala said after the vote ended on Saturday. “The constitution clearly states that the government must be supported by a majority in parliament.”

Christian Democrat leader Marian Jurecka, whose party is part of Spolu, said on Sunday the alliance would be able to create a government by Christmas if Zeman doesn’t prolong the process and gives them the mandate.

But the president’s past actions point to a potentially tumultuous path forward. In office since 2013 and now in his final term, he has carved out a stronger role for the traditionally ceremonial presidential post, repeatedly testing the limits of constitutional conventions.

Czech media broadcast images of an ambulance leaving the president’s retreat near Prague, shortly after Zeman held talks with Babis there. The president’s chief doctor said Zeman was being treated in an intensive-care unit of the military hospital in Prague. Zeman didn’t give his medical team permission to specify the diagnosis. 

“It’s clear that his condition is serious and it would be appropriate to give public more details about it,” said Josef Mlejnek, political scientists at Charles University. “As he indicated earlier he’ll likely ask Babis to form a government, as ANO was the strongest single party, but on the other hand he has to see that ANO has no chance to form a government if the electoral coalition parties stick together.”

The parties pushing for the right to form a new government, which also include a center-left alliance of the Pirate Party and Czech mayors, have criticized the president’s office for refusing to specify his health condition. The upper house of parliament, controlled by parties opposing Zeman’s policies, unsuccessfully has in the past tried to declare him unfit for office.

Spolu and the Pirate-led alliance snatched victory after slamming Babis for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a string of legal scandals, and revelations of offshore deals in the Pandora Papers. They also pledged to quickly cut the budget deficit from record shortfalls caused by increased social spending under the virus and are promising to improve Czech relations with the EU after years of conflict-of-interest tussles tied to Babis’s business empire. 

Although he avoided the type of rule-of-law battles that have pitted Brussels against Hungary and Poland, Babis has clashed with Brussels after the bloc’s auditors determined he kept the control of his company despite placing it in trusts after taking power.

While conceding defeat on Saturday, Babis said he would try to create a new cabinet if Zeman keeps his promise and asks him to do so.

Zeman has in the past interfered with political procedures. He defied a parliamentary majority in 2013 by naming his own technocrat administration that ruled for six months without ever winning legislative approval. After the 2017 elections, he kept Babis in power in a caretaker role for more than six months before it secured backing.

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