The post-election impasse in the Czech Republic has been further prolonged after the country’s president tested positive for Covid-19 and was returned to hospital hours after being discharged following 46 days of treatment for an unrelated condition.
Miloš Zeman was taken to Prague’s central military hospital on Thursday evening, prompting his staff to call off a meeting on Friday at which he was scheduled to appoint Petr Fiala as prime minister, replacing Andrej Babiš who failed to be re-elected to the office.
Zeman, 77, who is believed to have chronic liver problems, was reported to have contracted the virus from a presidential staff member, who is understood to have been his personal nurse. He was said to have no symptoms, having recently received a Covid booster jab.
During his long hospitalisation, members of Zeman’s staff were pictured meeting him without respirator masks, in breach of hospital Covid rules.
Thursday’s announcement was greeted with widespread astonishment on social media, with renewed calls for parliament to invoke a constitutional clause that would allow it to declare the president unfit to exercise his powers so that a new administration could quickly take office.
In response, Zeman’s spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček, announced the president would be discharged again on Saturday and his long-delayed meeting with Fiala, the leader of a centre-right grouping, Spolu, would happen on Sunday.
This raised eyebrows among health officials, who suggested it broke Covid quarantine rules. Pavla Svrčinová, the chief hygienist, said Zeman’s office had not agreed the meeting with her. “Even for people who do not have clinical symptoms of Covid-19 but have tested positive, the isolation period lasts at least 14 days,” she told Czech television.
Even that meeting at the presidential countryside retreat of Lány Castle will not lead to the immediate swearing in of the proposed new government, a coalition between Spolu and Pir-STAN, a liberal bloc of parties.
Zeman has insisted on meeting each cabinet nominee personally, a process expected to take more than two weeks, and has said he will try to veto at least one minister, believed to be Jan Lipavský, the proposed foreign minister, who has pledged a hardline with Russia and China – countries with which the president has cultivated close ties.
Zeman’s stance has drawn accusations of deliberate foot-dragging at a time when the Czech Republic is scrambling to contain a rampant fifth wave of Covid infections. A record 27,717 cases were recorded on Thursday, the third time this week that daily infection numbers had reached a new peak. The infection rate of 1,231 per 100,000 people is the highest in Europe after neighbouring Slovakia.
“You have this artificial delay,” said Jiří Pehe, a political scientist and director of New York University in Prague, who contrasted Zeman’s meetings in hospital with the president of Slovakia, Zuzana Čaputová, and Babiš with an apparent reluctance to meet Fiala.
“If he can meet the Slovak president, he could have met Fiala and he could also have met the ministerial candidates,” said Pehe. “But he didn’t so obviously he is dragging his feet. He is obstructing when the country is in a crisis.”
Zeman was admitted to intensive care on 10 October, a day after a surprise poll defeat for Babiš’s ANO party, which he had vowed to support. His condition left him unable to fulfil the president’s constitutional role in appointing a new government. Despite two official medical reports declaring him too ill to fully perform his duties, parliament declined to invoke article 66 of the constitution which would have allowed MPs to temporarily take over his powers.
The impasse also means the Babiš administration continues as a caretaker government, but its authority is dwindling as the Covid situation worsens.
With many hospitals being filled to capacity and cancelling non-urgent operations, Babis government declared a state of emergency on Thursday, including a ban on Christmas markets and an order for pubs and restaurants to shut at 10pm. However, it has ruled out a further lockdown.