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Czech Republic: Election Sheds Some Light On Next Year's Presidential Vote

Weekend Senate and local elections in the Czech Republic underscored the relatively little interest Czechs have in their upper chamber of parliament. But the vote did shed some light on who might succeed Vaclav Havel as president when he retires next February.

Prague, 4 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As in previous years, voter turnout for weekend Senate and local elections in the Czech Republic was minimal.

Only a third of eligible voters cast their ballots. Interest in the Senate remains especially low, with a majority of Czechs apparently agreeing with some politicians who continue to advocate the abolition of parliament's upper chamber as an expensive and none-too-useful assembly.

The Czech Senate's powers do pale in comparison with those of the lower house, or Chamber of Deputies. But there is one instance when the Senate plays a crucial role: the election of the Czech president, who is selected by legislators from both chambers of parliament.

In February next year, Vaclav Havel, after a term as Czechoslovakia's first postcommunist president and a decade as Czech president, is due to step down after reaching the constitutionally mandated end to his term in office.

Potential successors are already jockeying for position and the just-completed Senate election makes the alignment of political forces clearer ahead of the presidential vote, although political observers say the outcome remains far from a foregone conclusion.

The governing coalition, led by the Social Democrats (CSSD) in tandem with the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU), already has a razor-thin, one-vote majority in the lower house of parliament. Following the Senate election, it no longer has a majority in the Senate.

But several independent candidates who won seats in the Senate on 2 November are expected to side with the ruling coalition when it comes to a presidential vote. Martin Komarek, editorial-page writer for the leading Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes," said: "It is absolutely unimaginable that the independents who won seats in the Senate this year would vote for [opposition Civic Democratic Party candidate] Vaclav Klaus or [Miroslav] Krizenecky, the Communist candidate. So, paradoxically, when journalists write that the government lost its majority in the Senate, when you look at the upcoming presidential election, they actually got stronger."

This means respected former judge and current government ombudsman Otakar Motejl could emerge as the favorite compromise candidate. As political commentator Bohumil Dolezal told RFE/RL, the 70-year-old Motejl would bring experience as well as impeccable political credentials to the job. "Dr. Motejl is a lawyer who defended dissidents as a defense attorney in political trials under totalitarianism. After the 1989 revolution, he became the chief justice of the Supreme Court, in which he did a commendable job. Subsequently, he was appointed justice minister in the Zeman cabinet but stepped down after his proposed comprehensive judicial reform was not approved by the cabinet," Dolezal said.

There is, however, a catch. Motejl could only hope to be elected with the full support of all governing-coalition deputies and senators, but the ruling Social Democrats remain split into two wings, with some legislators clearly backing controversial former Social Democratic Prime Minister Milos Zeman over any recommendations made by the party's current leadership.

Because the presidential vote is by secret ballot, dissent by even a couple of Social Democratic legislators would be easy and could torpedo Motejl's chances. If the first three rounds of voting end in a stalemate, a second set of voting would be called -- a circumstance under which Zeman has already said he would be willing to stand as a presidential candidate.

"Under normal circumstances, Motejl could make it with a slim majority if the entire government coalition agreed to support him. But there is one hitch: The ruling coalition only has a one-seat majority in the lower house of parliament. It can count on a majority in the Senate, thanks to support from independent Senators, but it will be a tight majority. And within the ruling Social Democrats there are quite a few supporters of [former Prime Minister] Milos Zeman. And Zeman's supporters will do everything to ensure the first [three rounds] of voting end in failure so Zeman can appear on the ballot for the second set of voting. Zeman has already publicly stated that he will only consent to be a presidential candidate if no one emerges out of the first rounds. To sum up, it means Zeman's supporters can be expected to vote for Zeman in the first rounds of secret balloting in order to derail Motejl's candidacy," Dolezal said.

Even if the situation progresses to this stage, Zeman would hardly be a shoo-in, and his victory would depend on deals being struck with both the Communists and the right-of-center Civic Democratic Party (ODS) -- a difficult, but possible, feat on the Czech political scene.

The other possible outcome is that a second set of three-round voting would end in a further stalemate. Dolezal said: "It is possible that even the second set of voting will end in failure. Voting rounds can be repeated indefinitely, in theory, but if the second set of voting ends in failure, it will be a clear signal that there is such an entrenched stalemate that another way will have to be found."

Surveys show 80 percent of Czechs would support a constitutional amendment establishing the direct, popular election of the president. Most politicians support the idea, including influential former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who, until recent polls showed he could win such an election, used to be a staunch opponent of a popular vote.

If parliamentarians prove unable to agree on a suitable successor to Vaclav Havel, moves to pass a quick constitutional amendment could triumph. In this case, all bets on Motejl or Zeman would be off, and victory could belong to Klaus, or a dark horse such as popular businessman Vaclav Fischer, who has already told journalists he would be interested in the job.