Czech turmoil as president goes to hospital during post-election talks

Milos Zeman was taken ill a day after surprise result gave him key role in forming a government

Czech President Milos Zeman was in a wheelchair when he received his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Prague in August. AP
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The Czech Republic was thrown into uncertainty on Sunday when President Milos Zeman was taken to hospital a day after a surprise election result handed him a key role in charting the country’s future.

Andrej Babis, the country’s billionaire prime minister, had met Mr Zeman for talks after surprisingly losing to an opposition bloc in Saturday’s vote.

With both Mr Babis and his opponents both claiming the right to form a government, Mr Zeman will be a key power-broker in post-election talks.

But his involvement was abruptly cut short when he was taken to hospital, where his doctor said he was in intensive care.

His doctor, Miroslav Zavoral, said he did not have permission to give details of Mr Zeman’s condition. But the president, 77, has chronic health problems and spent eight nights in hospital last month.

“We know the diagnosis precisely, which allows us to target treatment,” said the doctor.

Power struggle

As president, Mr Zeman has the power to nominate the prime minister and has indicated that he could use it to Mr Babis’s advantage.

Mr Babis conceded on Saturday that his rivals had won more votes as a coalition, but his ANO party was the largest single group.

Before the election, Mr Zeman had indicated that he would nominate the leader of the largest individual party.

“If the president authorises me to do so, I will lead talks on forming a cabinet,” said Mr Babis, who has been in power since 2017.

But the centre-right alliance, known as Together, would have a majority if it agreed a deal with another opposition bloc called Pirates/Mayors.

Petr Fiala, the leader of Together, had said that the two blocs would ask Mr Zeman for approval to form a government.

“I am convinced that the election results are unambiguous,” he said. “The constitution clearly states that the government must be supported by a majority in parliament.”

Supporters of opposition leader Petr Fiala react to the election result at the headquarters of the Civic Democratic Party in Prague. Reuters

The opposition parties refuse to work with Mr Babis over what they see as unacceptable conflicts of interest related to his business empire.

Mr Babis, 67, has faced criticism over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 30,000 people in the Czech Republic.

The Communist Party, which had supported Mr Babis’s minority government, dropped out of parliament for the first time since the end of the Second World War.

Mr Zeman is a pro-Russian former Communist who was re-elected for a second term in 2018.

A heavy smoker, he has used a wheelchair and was previously admitted to hospital on September 14. His office said he was suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.

On election day, he cancelled a trip to the polling station and a ballot box was brought to him by officials.

Updated: October 10, 2021, 3:11 PM