Prague, 20 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The two chambers of the Czech Republic's parliament met for its first ever joint session today in the ornate Spanish Hall of Prague castle to elect the President of the Republic for a five year term.
Three candidates are competing for the post, incumbent President Vaclav Havel, who has never been a member of any party, communist (KSCM) Stanislav Fischer, and the chairman of the extreme right-wing Republican Party (SPR-RSC), Miroslav Sladek, currently in pretrial detention on charges of spreading racial hatred.
Havel has said he would have preferred to have more serious opposition. But no one from the mainstream parties has come forward to challenge him.
The vote can be expected later today or tomorrow. If no one is elected in the first round, a second round must be held within 14 days and a third round 14 days after that.
The mass circulation daily Mlada Fronta Dnes wrote yesterday that Havel is so popular that only the country's founding president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) could have beat him in an election.
At the outset of today's session, the main questions were: would Havel's victory come in the first round and would the vote be by a show of hands or by secret ballot as five years ago. Also far from clear was how many lawmakers from the two largest parties both currently in the opposition, Vaclav Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Milos Zeman's Social Democrats, would vote against Havel, and whether Klaus would be among them.
In addition to facing opposition from the Communists and the Republicans, Havel also faces opposition from some members of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who were apparently offended by Havel's recent criticism of their leader's performance as prime minister.
Havel blamed the country's political crisis largely on Klaus and ODS and their macro-economic policies. He said that they failed to take into account the social problems.
Havel's candidacy for reelection was proposed by deputies and senators from the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL), the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA), the Social Democrats (CSSD) and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS).
Havel, Sladek and Communist candidate Marie Stiborova competed in the Czech Republic's first presidential election in January 1993.
That election came just days after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, which Havel had led as president from December 1989 until July 1992.
Since then, an upper house, the Senate, has been constituted, with 81 Senators. To win in the first round Havel would need an absolute majority of both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, that means 101 of the (200) deputies and 41 of the (81) Senators.
Havel did not campaign, saying anyone who reads his speeches or listens to his weekly radio chats know what he stands for, nor did he attend today's debates.
For well over a decade, Havel has filled the role of "conscience of the nation", initially as an persecuted dissident playwright, then as the leading force in the non-violent Velvet Revolution in late 1989. He was elected by the Communist-dominated parliament in December 1989 as president of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a post he accepted on the proviso that he would lead the country to free parliamentary elections within six months.
The new parliament of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic then reelected Havel to a two-year term. Havel resigned the presidency in July 1992 when it became clear that he could no longer stave off Czechoslovakia's dissolution.
Havel said last year that during the six month period while he was out of office as the country was breaking up, a steady stream of citizens called on him to lead the new, independent Czech Republic. He says one of their main arguments was that Czechs needed someone at the top to keep telling them "do n-o-t steal."
During the last five years or so Havel repeatedly called on his compatriots to respect fundamental values of human rights and a "certain order of things."
In the course of Havel's five years as president of the Czech republic, public confidence in Prime Minister Klaus and parliament ebbed away as a result of massive, widespread and frequently unlawful appropriation of funds from banks, investment funds and semi-privatized enterprises, while Havel's popularity rating remained consistently high. It is currently around 70 percent.
Havel tried to remain above party politics. His relationship with Klaus was trying at times, forcing Havel to unilaterally discontinue his meetings with the Prime Minister. It was said that Klaus instead of informing the president about the cabinet's discussions and decisions, used the opportunity to chide Havel for various comments he had made during the previous week that were not to Klaus' liking.
On the international stage, Havel remained highly respected and frequently decorated, his views sought after by world leaders and academics. Havel was one of the earliest advocates of expanding NATO and the European Union to include new members in Central and Eastern Europe, and for coordinating that integration with the new democracies. This was at a time when Klaus and his government opposed a public debate over NATO and rejected cooperation with other candidates.