Accessibility links

Czech Republic: Lawmakers Prepare To Elect Successor To Havel

  • Jolyon Naegele

The combined houses of the Czech parliament will gather on 15 January to elect a president. But will it be an exercise in futility? None of the four candidates is believed likely to have the votes to win in the first round -- or even in the first runoff.

Prague, 13 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The deputies and senators of the Czech parliament will gather Wednesday in Prague Castle's baroque Spanish Hall in a bid to elect a successor to President Vaclav Havel, whose final five-year term ends in three weeks.

But it is still far from clear whether, when Havel leaves office on 3 February, there will be a successor to inaugurate, a task traditionally performed to the strains of the fanfare from Bedrich Smetana's opera "Libuse."

Former dissident and ex-Deputy Interior Minister Petruska Sustrova is now a columnist with the Czech daily "Lidove noviny." "It's quite a mystery whether they'll succeed in electing anyone. Not even the chairmen of the [party] clubs [caucuses] know how it will turn out because there are so many interests at stake. Now, of course, the leaderships of the clubs are speaking up, but no one really knows whether some deputy will stick his neck out [and vote against his party's recommendation]. And I dare say the deputies don't know themselves. This is an election for which the outcome is extraordinarily difficult to predict," Sustrova said.

Four candidates are in the running in the first round: former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, backed by his Civic Democratic Party (ODS); the speaker of the Senate, Petr Pithart, who has some backing from the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL); Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslav Bures, who is backed by the ruling Social Democrats; and defense lawyer and former military prosecutor Miroslav Krizenecky, who is backed by the Communists (KSCM).

All except Klaus were members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party: Pithart until 1968, Bures and Krizenecky until 1989.

As of now, none of the four has enough votes to win the support of 101 of the 200 lawmakers in the lower house and 41 of the 81 in the Senate -- the numbers required to win in the first round or the first runoff. The votes cast by the members of the two houses of parliament are counted separately in the first round and initial runoff, making victory very difficult.

In the likely event that a second runoff becomes necessary, the election rules stipulate that parliament votes as a single body, improving the chances that someone will be elected. All three parts of the first round could be held on 15 January, or lawmakers may declare a pause of up to 14 days between votes.

Klaus is likely to have the largest share of votes in the lower house and Pithart the largest share in the Senate.

Some Social Democrats, in an effort to block their party's controversial former chairman and ex-prime minister Milos Zeman from entering the fray at a later stage, are trying to organize support within their own ranks for Pithart in the third round.

It is equally conceivable that pro-Zeman forces in the Social Democratic Party -- perceiving the "threat" of an imminent Pithart victory -- will swing their support behind Klaus in exchange for certain political concessions, including perhaps a comfortable but prominent diplomatic posting abroad for Zeman.

If no one wins in the second runoff, a completely new round of elections would be called, in which new candidates could join. To date, the only contender for that round, should it be held, is Zeman, who is offering himself as a compromise candidate.

Sustrova said it is conceivable that, in the second runoff, the Communist deputies, as well as some Social Democrats, will try to block Klaus's election by voting for Pithart, since he is perceived as a more consensual politician. She noted that there is strong opposition in parliament both to Klaus and to Zeman, since, she said, both are perceived as opinionated and combative. "For the Social Democrats, [Zeman's election as president] would clearly mean the end of Spidla's government, because I can't imagine that Milos Zeman would not impose his own manner of politics, from which [Czech Prime Minister Vladimir] Spidla's government has tried to differentiate itself," Sustrova said.

If subsequent rounds fail to elect a president, parliament can be expected to enact constitutional changes enabling direct election of the president by popular vote. Analysts suggest the earliest a direct election could be held would be September. Until then, most presidential powers would be split between Spidla and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Lubomir Zaoralek.

The current campaign has been marked by several small scandals. Otokar Motejl, once a leading compromise candidate, is the Czech ombudsman and a former justice minister, Supreme Court chief justice, and defense lawyer for communist-era dissidents. He admitted to having been convicted of killing a pedestrian in a car accident some two decades ago and gave up his candidacy when the affair came to light.

Deputy Prime Minister Bures criticized Motejl for not having made the information public at the outset. Yet it came to light that Bures had also killed a pedestrian in a car accident two decades ago. In contrast to Motejl's case, however, a communist-era court found Bures was not at fault. Bures also attracted further negative publicity by also claiming to have defended a dissident Charter 77 signer, who turned out not to have been a dissident at all but a member of the Communist nomenklatura.

Columnist Sustrova warned against making blind generalizations about the qualifications of former Communists for the post of president. "It is an important, symbolic function. A Communist as a successor to Vaclav Havel, among a portion of the public, would evoke some surprise or displeasure, but I think that we can easily compare Jaroslav Bures and Petr Pithart," Sustrova said.

Sustrova noted that Pithart joined the Communist Party in its most liberal period in the 1960s, quit after the Soviet-led invasion, and was an active opponent of the communist system. She noted that, in contrast, Bures joined the party in the mid-1980s by his own admission out of careerism to qualify for a higher post. "Of course, there is the question how one should look at this, since after all, not all former Communists are the same. There is a difference," Sustrova said.

Sustrova said it is a plus for Klaus that he was never a member of the Communist Party or an advocate of the communist system.

Havel, who was never a Communist, has served two terms as Czech president, and prior to that served two terms as president of postcommunist Czechoslovakia. He was elected president of Czechoslovakia for the first time by an overwhelmingly Communist federal parliament in December 1989.

His election was the culmination of the bloodless Velvet Revolution, which ended more than four decades of Communist dictatorship. His first term was for just six months, with the aim of leading the country to free elections.

The new, overwhelmingly non-Communist parliament elected Havel to a two-year term, at the end of which parliamentary elections doomed the federal state to disintegration into two independent states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Aware that his chances were minimal of winning the support of Slovak parliamentarians to gain re-election, Havel resigned, declaring he would not preside over the disintegration of the country he had been elected to lead.

For the remaining 5 1/2 months of the federation, the federal prime minister, Jan Strasky, took over most duties of head of state.

However, soon after Czech independence on 1 January 1993, Havel was elected president of the newly born state by the unicameral Czech parliament for a five-year term, with the support of 109 of the 200 parliamentary deputies.

Five years ago, following the establishment of an upper house of parliament, the Senate, the first-ever joint working session of both houses re-elected Havel on the second ballot by a plurality of just one vote, even though he was running unopposed.