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Czech Republic: Havel's Illness Comes At Bad Moment

By Jafim Fistein and Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Serious illness has again led to the absence of Czech President Vaclav Havel from the country's political scene.

His disappearance for an undefined period could not have come at a worse moment for the nation. Not only is he a symbol of unity among his politically-divided people, indeed he is widely seen as the only figure guaranteeing the legitimacy of the political process in the Czech Republic.

Havel, who is 61, fell ill last week while holidaying in Austria. Amid fears for his life he was rushed to hospital there and underwent an operation to repair a punctured intestine. He has since had two further operations, and it is unclear when, or even if, he will be able to return to work. His health has been very fragile since he underwent a lung cancer operation in December 1996. In a subsequent bout of illness he nearly died of pneumonia.

Already calls for his resignation are beginning to emerge. The Deputy Speaker of the lower house of parliament, Jaroslav Zverina, has said Havel should never have stood for reelection earlier this year considering his condition. The names of new presidential candidates are already being mentioned around the corridors of parliament.

But if Havel were to stand down, his hand would be sorely missed, particularly now when the country has only an interim government and is facing a series of key elections. Although the Czech Republic has been characterized by political calm since its emergence from communist rule, its democratic institutions are still tender. Most Czechs would certainly appreciate Havel's towering moral presence through this period.

There are few among the country's squabbling senior politicians who could convincingly replace him. Interim Prime Minister Josef Tosovsky, though he has done a creditable job in office, is not suitable because of his communist past. Former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus is discredited because of his arrogance in office and the allegations of impropriety in his party's funding affairs. Social Democrat leader Milos Zeman is likewise enmired in party funding allegations, and has little popular support.

There is even a muddiness developing around the question of who would step in as acting state president in the event that Havel should have to leave office suddenly. The constitution sets out that the temporary duties of president will be exercised jointly by the speaker of the lower house and the head of government. But Zeman is currently lower house speaker. Largely because of his perceived unsuitability, the Czech press have recently begun to raise the possibility that the Speaker of the Senate, Petr Pithart, might be better suited for the high office.

All this uncertainty comes amid a crowded field of elections. An early vote for lower house deputies takes place on June 19 and 20, as a result of the collapse of Vaclav Klaus's ruling coalition. The voting is likely to produce an inconclusive outcome, with the prospect of subsequent very complicated coalition negotiations between the parties. A successful conclusion to such negotiations would be difficult even under an active president. With Havel ailing or absent, it might be impossible.

Later in the year, in the Fall, there will be an election for one-third of the Senate. And there are also municipal elections, which will probably take place at the same time.

In addition, there are other crucial and pressing political issues facing the Czech Republic. These include the impending membership of the NATO alliance, with the demands it brings for reform and modernization of the military sector. Infinitely more complicated is the process of negotiations by the Czechs to enter the European Union. These negotiations can be expected to continue for years, and to have many tense moments. The Czechs have already shown a lively resistance to some of Brussels' demands concerning agricultural trade.

And in addition to NATO and the EU, there is the domestic issue of electoral reform, as demanded by some center-right political parties. These parties are demanding the replacement of the present complicated proportional representation system with the simpler majority system. One of the parties is also demanding direct popular presidential elections, instead of the present system under which the president is elected by parliament.