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Czech Republic: Political Divisions Stymie Election Of President

  • Jolyon Naegele

In a nine-hour session yesterday, the two chambers of the Czech parliament failed to elect a new president of the republic. RFE/RL looks at the vote and the prospects for finding a successor to Vaclav Havel, whose term expires on 3 February.

Prague, 16 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The biggest surprise to emerge from yesterday's voting in the ornate Spanish Hall of Prague Castle was the strong showing by former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and the weak support shown for the man who had been tipped as the likely winner, Senate President Petr Pithart.

After coming in ahead in the third session of voting, though still 28 votes short of the needed majority, Klaus asked for the floor to address lawmakers. "Let me use this moment to thank those of you who gave me your votes, who contributed to my having...not won but having gained the most votes in all three rounds of today's voting.... Above all, I'd like also to thank those who didn't vote for me today, mainly because I hope that they'll do better next time," he said.

The main Czech dailies, such as "Mlada fronta Dnes" and "Lidove noviny," had banner headlines today saying, "Klaus Won But Not By Enough."

What came as no surprise was the split in the ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD). Klaus finished surprisingly strongly in the first session of yesterday's voting, when many deputies, including numerous Social Democrats, gave him their votes to ensure the elimination of Social Democratic candidate and Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslav Bures. Bures was widely perceived to be a weak candidate even before discrediting himself during the campaign.

Voting for Klaus in the first session was done to block Bures and ostensibly to clear the way for Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) candidate Pithart. As a result, however, Pithart came in last in the four-way contest in the first session of voting in the lower house, though he took first place -- albeit without a majority -- in the Senate.

In subsequent votes, Pithart failed to match the significant gains shown by Klaus. In the third and final session yesterday, in which all 200 deputies and 81 senators voted together -- with 141 votes needed for a victory --- 113 voted for Klaus and 84 for Pithart. Eighty-four lawmakers abstained.

The abstainers in the second and third rounds were Communists, as well as those Social Democrats favoring the entry of former Prime Minister Milos Zeman in a subsequent all-new round of voting. As a result, the ruling Social Democrats confirmed their divisions over who should be president.

A leading Czech commentator, Alexandr Mitrofanov, writing in the left-wing daily "Pravo" today, says Czech Prime Minister and Social Democratic Party Chairman Vladimir Spidla is to blame for what he says is the "hopeless state" of the party.

Mitrofanov said, "Spidla apparently is not up to the accumulation of state and party functions" and Spidla "does not know how to communicate." Mitrofanov accuses Spidla of "failing to perceive the importance of managing the party with his own team, which he never succeeded in even forming" and of "failing as a negotiator within his party and with potential allies."

Mitrofanov said Spidla had the bad luck to be confronted from the start by "an organized and experienced force" led from afar, he says, by Zeman and carried out with the help of some 30 deputies. He predicts that regardless of whether Zeman eventually is elected president, Spidla is likely to be relegated to the back benches with no chance of re-election.

Jiri Pehe, a former adviser to Havel, says the Social Democrats are in a deep crisis, with a portion of the party perceiving Spidla as weak and demanding a strong leader in his place. "It is clear that a part of the Social Democrats have never come to terms with Vladimir Spidla because he threatens their special interests. They are doing everything they can to get rid of Spidla, and they've determined that the best way to do this is by putting Milos Zeman in the castle [as president]," he said.

A commentator for the Czech news weekly "Tyden," Martin Fendrych, shares a similar view. Fendrych, a former deputy interior minister, said Zeman's wing of the party, operating behind the scenes, demonstrated yesterday a far greater ability to manage the situation than Spidla and his allies. "The Social Democrats literally made a fool of their own candidate Jaroslav Bures, who clearly lost. And, in fact, they even made a fool of the person who put him on the scene, Interior Minister Stanislav Gross, the Social Democrats' 'crown prince.'"

Fendrych notes that under the circumstances, Gross is remaining silent. Mitrofanov describes Gross as the "most cautious Social Democrat" and that it is questionable whether Spidla can count on his support. "The fact of the matter is that the Social Democrats completely lost the elections. Spidla's position is very uncertain and in contrast, Milos Zeman is heading out on his own from [his home in the Bohemian-Moravian] highlands to [Prague] for the second full round of elections."

Fendrych said there were no winners in yesterday's voting, not even Klaus. "I think it is rather laughable to suggest that Vaclav Klaus won. Yesterday's election quite simply was tactical, as if it circumvented the substance of the candidates. So Vaclav Klaus, especially in the first vote, when he got 92 votes from the lower house, may seem like a big winner, but in fact it's like when you're playing hockey and you hit the goal post -- it doesn't count," Fendrych said.

Fendrych said Klaus wasn't the issue. Rather, he said, it was, above all, an attempt to get Zeman on the next ballot.

The Communists' (KSCM) own candidate, Miroslav Krizenecky, was also eliminated in the first session of voting, after which the party became the target of lobbying campaigns by Klaus, Pithart, and Spidla. Unconfirmed reports in today's press say the Communists demanded seats on the Constitutional Court and on the board of the central bank, but won no promises.

After the first session, Communist lawmakers agreed not to vote in subsequent sessions, making it all but impossible for anyone to be elected.

Fendrych says the Communists have been doing well since the general elections last June, when the party became the third-strongest in parliament. He said their strength was palpable in yesterday's voting. "The Communists' strength is to be found not just in the number of votes but also in the fact that the party is not at all divided but rather is fully aligned, proving through all three rounds of the first elections that it was able to do what it had set out to do. That is the basic difference compared to all the other parties."

Fendrych said the second round of voting, to be held sometime in the next 30 days, will be as unpredictable as the votes in the first round and in all likelihood will not be won by anyone. He predicts that either the voting will go to a third round or else parliament will decide to undertake the complicated procedure of amending the constitution so that the president is elected by direct public ballot.

"If you start to count the votes of the parties and start considering the internal interests of the parties, you see that no candidate can win [in a second or third round in parliament]. Understandably, there could be some sort of deal that we'd find out about much later. There's a lot of talk that if ODS sees that [its own] Vaclav Klaus has no chance, perhaps a part of the party's deputies would be willing to give their votes to Milos Zeman, but I think these are very theoretical views. Yesterday's vote showed that these theories don't fit," Fendrych said.

In the end, Fendrych said, much depends on whether Spidla is able to agree with Pithart's KDU-CSL and a part of Klaus's ODS on a completely different candidate -- someone who could be discussed during the second round of voting but who would only enter the fray in a third round -- in the event that neither Zeman nor Klaus succeeds.

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