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Czech Republic: President Havel Wins Re-Election By One Vote

Prague, 21 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The first ever joint working session of the Czech Republic's bicameral parliament re-elected Vaclav Havel last night to a second and final five-year presidential term.

Havel's victory came after nearly 11 hours of a debating marathon punctuated by repeated breaks. He won on the second ballot, when he was the only candidate, but by just one vote.

The first ballot, in which Havel was opposed by little known Communist astrophysicist Stanislav Fischer, and chairman of the ultra-right-wing Republican party (SPR-RSC) Miroslav Sladek, ended inconclusively, with only 91 deputies in the 200-seat lower house and 39 senators in the 81-member upper house voting for him. Five years ago Havel won on the first ballot with the support of 109 of the 200 deputies. The Senate did not yet exist then.

None of the candidates took part in the debate. Havel was not present, Fischer failed to gain enough support to be allowed to address the session, and Sladek was spending the day in pre-trial detention in prison charged with contempt of court. Moreover, the lawmakers decided not to let him cast a ballot from his prison cell.

Havel's poor showing on the first ballot came as a surprise to many. Opposition Social Democrat (CSSD) deputy chairwoman Petra Buzkova told reporters she was shocked at the lower house's low support for the incumbent president.

Centrist Christian Democrat (KDU-CSL) chairman Josef Lux termed the first round an "expression of Czech political pettiness... an effort at humiliating someone before he is elected".

Right-of-center Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA) chairman Jiri Skalicky said the vote showed a "distasteful attempt" by certain parliamentarians to give Havel a "slap in the face."

In the second ballot, with Fischer and Sladek taken off the list, Havel scraped through by a vote of 99 to 98 in the lower house, and 47 of 81 in the Senate.

Deputy Republican leader Jan Vik immediately denounced the vote as "illegitimate," saying that had Sladek been allowed to cast a ballot Havel would have lost. Vik said the Republicans do not recognize the election.

At that, Havel's wife, Dagmar, who was present in the hall, responded by sticking two fingers in her mouth and whistling loudly.

Subsequently, Havel briefly thanked the lawmakers for their trust by reelecting him in a secret ballot. He made no reference to the slim margin of his victory. Havel is to be sworn on February 2, when his first five-year term in office ends.

Had Havel lost the second round, a third round would have been held in which, in all likelihood, he would have won handily for two reasons.

Firstly, the election rules for the third round stipulate that the parliament votes as a single body. In this situation, an overall majority of all those present, the majority that Havel had in the previous ballots, would have sufficed.

Secondly, many followers of Vaclav Klaus' opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS), who cast ballots against Havel in the first two rounds, would be likely to vote for him in the third ballot to prevent further destabilization of the country.

A commentary in the Prague daily "Mlada Fronta Dnes" says today that Havel "is the only one of the former dissidents who was brought to the head of a post communist government not to be steamrolled." As the paper puts it, Havel "has always won, though often tightly."

Commenting on parliament's failure to elect Havel in the first round, another Prague paper, "Lidove noviny," noted that the vote "shows a great deal of political cowardice", while another commentary in the same paper terms the second round of voting a "farce."

One of the Czech Republic's political commentators, Jiri Hanak, writing in the left of center daily "Pravo" noted that it is a paradox that "parliament, which is trusted by ten to twenty percent of the public, dealt with the candidacy of a man who is trusted by more than seventy percent of all citizens." Hanak also said that Havel "in spite of all mistakes and ill-conceived ideas which he will still certainly commit, is a great figure of Czech politics and this is how he will enter history."

By contrast, ODS chairman Vaclav Klaus says the president's narrow victory reflects Havel's real political position in the country and shows how split the Czech society is.

Parliamentary speaker and chairman of the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) Milos Zeman, many of whose deputies refrained from voting for Havel noted the president's "narrow victory may be more satisfactory than a big victory because it reflects the balance of forces."

Prime Minister Josef Tosovsky, whose new cabinet faces a no confidence vote later this month, says Havel's re-election sends a "positive signal abroad."

Speaker of the Senate, Petr Pithart, welcomed Havel's re-election, noting "the habit to decide by one vote has been taking root in this country and is an expression of a sort of absolute Czech skepticism." Communist (KCSM) party chairman Miroslav Grebenicek offered Havel his congratulations and criticized Vik for challenging the validity of the election.