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Czech leadership lurches along

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After 10 years as president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus has suffered a bitter farewell. On March 4 lawmakers in the upper house voted to charge him with high treason. He will be called before the constitutional court, which will rule whether his judicial amnesty at the start of the year violated the constitution.

Thirty-eight senators voted to impeach Klaus, with 30 voting against. Ostensibly the cause was the amnesty. It pardoned all convicts serving prison terms of less than one year, those sentenced for non-violent crimes serving less than two years, those 70 or older whose sentences did not exceed three years and those 75 or older serving less than 10 years.

Most controversially, Klaus stopped criminal proceedings that have lasted for more than eight years, as long as the defendants face at most 10 years in prison. This category includes several high-profile cases of embezzlement, bribery and fraud dating back to the wild post-communist overhaul of the economy spearheaded by Klaus.

However justified the outrage about Klaus’ ill-advised amnesty, impeachment is little more than a nuisance for him. The worst punishment he faces is the loss of his presidential job, which he had to relinquish last week anyway, and of his presidential pension.

The Czech Republic’s first-ever impeachment could do more damage to the institution of the presidency, which is still held in high regard by most ordinary people.

"A republic lives through its institutions," says Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who ran unsuccessfully to be Klaus’ successor.

For Schwarzenberg, who is no friend of Klaus and was aghast at the amnesty, the senators’ move is a sign that his country’s democracy is "like a 15-year-old son."

It is up to Milos Zeman, the incoming president, to restore peace to an office whose powers Klaus stretched to the limits. Zeman is different from his predecessor: He is a firm believer in the European Union and a man of the left who admires the Scandinavian welfare state. He has promised to fly the EU’s gold-starred flag at Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, and is likely to steer his government toward a more conciliatory stance in EU negotiations.

Even so, in some ways Klaus and Zeman are quite similar. Both are populists who served as prime minister but had bumpy political careers. Both speak bluntly: Klaus, who dismisses concerns about global warming, has called Al Gore an "apostle of arrogance" because of his campaigning on climate change. Zeman has called Schwarzenberg a sudetak — a pejorative term for Sudeten Germans — and referred to journalists as "hyenas" or "manure." On a visit to Tel Aviv, he likened Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

Both men are more fiercely combative when they feel that they have been let down. After Klaus fell out with Mirek Topolanek, his successor at the helm of the right-wing Civic Democratic Party, he helped to bring down the government, even though it was halfway through the Czech Republic’s EU presidency.

For his part, Zeman has an ax to grind with the Social Democrats, who failed to back him in 2003 when he first considered running for the presidency. Although Zeman said after his victory that his old party should not worry, many fear his wrath.

After the fireworks of the Klaus regime, it does not augur well for a calm, constructive presidency.

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