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Czech Republic: A New President? O, Gott!

As Czech politicians search for a viable candidate to replace departed President Vaclav Havel, a new name is being circulated that is sure to provoke strong views. As RFE/RL reports, pop tenor Karel Gott, known as the "Czech Elvis," is being mentioned as a candidate in the event the constitution is amended to enable direct presidential elections.

Prague, 6 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Czech crooner Karel Gott, who has been at the top of the Czech pop-music scene since the mid-1960s, is being put forward as a candidate for the country's presidency. Is Gott's potential candidacy a joke, a threat, or a serious bid? It seems to be a bit of each.

The Czech news media have generally given the potential Gott candidacy modest coverage. But the pro-government, leftist daily "Pravo" gave the story the top half of the front page today with a banner headline, "Gott Willing To Enter Direct Elections," and in smaller letters, "But Politicians Reserved About His Candidacy."

Gott's candidacy was announced at a news conference in Prague yesterday with the help of three aging Czech rock musicians. The musicians were dressed in T-shirts with Gott's image below the logo "KAREL GOTT prezident" and the German slogan "Gott mit uns" ("God with us").

The crooner modeled his style after the early Elvis Presley and is still quite popular in the Czech Republic, Germany, and Russia. Gott himself was absent from the press conference but sent a brief message saying he would consider running in the event that the head of state is directly elected. But he noted, "For the time being, I consider it premature, and I believe that our lawmakers will behave sensibly in the third round of elections and spare me this difficult dilemma."

One of the rock musicians, Petr Peceny, said the idea of Gott running for president developed in response to horse-trading last month during the first two rounds of voting for a new president by members of the Czech parliament. In that voting, no candidate received the needed majority. "By this declaration, we and he have expressed a sort of opinion about the current situation," Peceny said. "We are presenting one candidate of whom it can be said that he is serious and well-known and who would unify people and create an island of healthy reason."

The other two rockers backing Gott -- Ales Brichta and Frantisek Moravec, who goes by the stage name Lou Fananek Hagen -- until recently had been supporters of the leading candidate for president, former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.

Brichta and Moravec deny that the Gott candidacy is a joke but rather should be interpreted as a message to parliamentarians that "things may be completely different from how they imagine they are."

This raises the question of whether the Gott candidacy isn't perhaps a setup by the Klaus camp to ensure a Klaus victory in direct elections, which would occur no earlier than September. Speaking with a straight face and from behind dark glasses, Brichta said, "The New Year's speech of the president of the Czech Republic, delivered in the form of a song, would be more memorable [than if read]."

In contrast to other recent candidates who have pulled out of the race, Gott apparently was never a member of the Communist Party. However, Gott did sign the Communist-sponsored, so-called Anti-Charter in 1977. The Anti-Charter was drawn up by the Communists against human rights activists like Havel who, in their famous petition Charter 77, called on the Communist authorities to abide by the civil rights legislation and treaties they had signed.

In an interview published today in the pro-Klaus daily "Lidove noviny," Gott said he can't imagine that matters will go so far as to warrant his actually being a formal candidate for president.

Asked whether he actually wants to run for president, Gott responded: "No, definitely not. The only thing I'd like is that it would be a good joke, if the next [presidential] New Year's speech would be sung."

Gott added that he doubts he will change his mind, saying: "I don't think it's for me. A little mistake would be enough. I'd say something not too diplomatically and there'd be an embarrassing situation. My stand is clear: I hope that the politicians agree [on a candidate]."

Gott's supporters say he would represent a "continuity of the tradition of presidents from the artistic sphere," a reference to Havel, a former playwright, who departed the presidency on 2 February when his final constitutionally allowed term expired.

Gott was among a small group of mostly mainstream musicians and actors who performed at a recent farewell concert for Havel.

Curiously, the only singer in recent history to have served as president, Joseph Estrada of the Philippines, an ardent populist, was forced from power three years ago amid accusations of massive corruption and largesse. Gott's backers say his considerable wealth is a political asset and makes him incorruptible.

Czech politicians have greeted the potential Gott candidacy with polite reserve and for now do not appear to be taking it -- at least in public -- too seriously. Lawmakers are trying to find a candidate agreeable to a majority in both houses of parliament, but so far the attempts have failed.

Klaus remains the candidate of his opposition Civic Democratic Party. The ruling Social Democrats remain without a candidate. The party's former leader and former prime minister, Milos Zeman, having failed early in the second round, has pledged not to run in a third round or in direct elections, should they be held.

The Social Democrats this week proposed running their deputy chairman, Pavel Rychetsky, but he pulled out after the People's Party objected that he was too partisan.

Several Czech academics whose names have been bandied about as potential candidates have expressed their unwillingness to run or serve at the present time.

All of this seems to suggest that a third round of voting may prove pointless and may not even be held.

Amending the constitution to enable the direct election of the president would take months, and it is still too early to say who -- beyond Klaus and, possibly, Gott -- would run. Who could ultimately be elected would depend very much on the rules of the game: whether a runoff would be required and, if so, how many candidates could participate.

Gott's candidacy may seem far-fetched even to the crooner himself, but much may change in the coming months to make such a development conceivable. If elected, Gott would certainly cap his long career on a high note.