Czech Republic: Third Time’s a Charm

A Czech civil servant replaces the portraits of the Czech president
Jaroslav Gogela replaces portraits of former Czech president Vaclav Havel (L) with ones of Vaclav Klaus (R) in the town hall in Ostrava, Czech Republic, March 19, 2003 (Photo: Dan Krzywon/AFP).

At the end of February, the Czech Parliament was set to convene yet again in an attempt to end what has become an almost farcical effort to elect a successor to President Vaclav Havel, who completed his second and final term on Feb. 2.

The public’s frustration with the parliamentary wrangling was reflected in the candidacy of pop singer Karel Gott and proposals to allow direct election of the president.

In two sessions of Parliament, on Jan. 15 and Jan. 24, no candidate garnered a sufficient number of votes. Vaclav Klaus, a former prime minister, and Jan Sokol, a former minister of education, are candidates in what is hoped will be a third and final round. Klaus, founder of the center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), ran in each of the previous votes.

Czech newspapers had mostly words of praise for Havel’s 13-year tenure, noting his generally high moral tone and his consistent efforts to orient the country toward the West. A former dissident and playwright, he had seen his standing at home wane in recent years. Ironically, as he took his final bow, Havel’s popularity seemed to soar, even among former antagonists. A report in Mlada Fronta Dnes on Havel’s last official trip to Slovakia, where 10 years earlier he had been demonized as an enemy of independence, was headlined: “Havel is more popular here than Rudy [Giuliani]” (Jan. 30).

Commentators blamed the protracted selection process on internal struggles within political parties, largely the Social Democrats (CSSD). According to this view, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, fearful of a resurgence by his predecessor and fellow CSSD member Milos Zeman, backed a hopeless nonentity, former Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures, as his party’s candidate. This caused the CSSD to split its support for Bures and Senate Speaker Petr Pithart, candidate for the Christian Democratic Union-Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-CSL). Pithart dropped out of the running when neither he nor Klaus received the necessary votes on Jan. 15.

“That Zeman can now enter the second round of voting...hardly means that he will be elected,” Mlada Fronta Dnes’ Martin Komarek observed presciently (Jan. 16). “The Social Democrats have proved to be much weaker and more divided than expected. Vaclav Klaus has proved to be much stronger—and more brilliant—than expected. In the end...Klaus and Pithart, both favored by the public, led a misguided and failed campaign for the Castle [residence of the president]. No miracle occurred. We know, however, that in this battle the CSSD lost face and the ODS acquitted itself well. For the election of the president, this doesn’t mean much. For the array of political forces in the country, it means a lot.” Erik Tabery and Ondrej Kundra of Respekt echoed Komarek’s judgment (Jan. 20): “Why hasn’t anyone been elected? In searching for an answer, we have to look at party problems. This is because the complicated selection of the president reflects the political scene in the coming months. It is obvious that the strongest party (and hence the government) is in a state of crisis.”

Klaus, an economist, was an articulate advocate of the free market when he was Czechoslovakia’s finance minister and the Czech Republic’s prime minister in the 1990s. According to a poll conducted by Mlada Fronta Dnes in early January, in a direct vote he would have defeated the three other candidates then running—Bures, Pithart, and Miroslav Krizenecky, a communist. Sokol, who is not affiliated with a political party, teaches at Charles University. A signatory of the Charter 77 human-rights declaration, he has called for dialogue with representatives of the Sudeten Germans, expelled from the Czech lands after World War II.

With Parliament scheduled to vote again on Feb. 28, preparations are under way to amend the constitution to allow direct election of the president by voters. According to Karel Steigerwald of Mlada Fronta Dnes, the CSSD has moved
slowly on direct elections because they would favor Klaus’ candidacy (Feb. 5). Pravo’s Petr Uhl, though noting other, more pressing issues, commented: “We shouldn’t forgo direct elections; they serve to develop democracy more than
indirect elections.”

On Feb. 5, three Czech musicians announced their half-jocular attempt to draft singer Karel Gott for president.

“My position is clear: I hope that the politicians will come to an agreement,” Gott told Lidove Noviny (Feb. 6). “My colleagues and friends were merely reacting to the unpleasant situation, and they regard the entire initiative as largely of a demonstrative nature.” In an item in Mlada Fronta Dnes titled “Why Not Gott?” (Feb. 6), Vladimir Kucera enumerated the singer’s noble interests: “He paints and writes. He philosophizes, just like Havel.”