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Will Czechs elect a worthy president, or a führer?


Direct elections are democratic and risky. In 2013, Czechs will set the standard for those that follow; the rest is in realm of the unknown

foto: © ČESKÁ POZICE, Richard CortésČeská pozice

Some people are delighted, others talk of the greatest breakthrough in the Constitution of the Czech Republic in its 19 years of existence, while President Václav Klaus calls it a “fatal mistake.” The subject in question is the changeover to direct presidential elections, which, despite all the skeptical predictions, was approved by the upper house of the Czech parliament, the Senate, on February 8.

From a party political perspective, support for direct presidential election was “mandatory” for the main opposition center-left Social Democrats (ČSSD), who have long been promoting its introduction, as they have referenda. Paradoxically, the same also applies to the government coalition parties, even though direct presidential election has traditionally been demonized by the Civic Democrats (ODS) in particular.

This is because Prime Minister Petr Nečas’ (ODS) three-party coalition had put direct presidential election into the coalition agreement and the government program on the insistence not only of the Public Affairs (VV) party, but also, under the influence of TOP 09 and its partner, the Movement of Mayors and Independents (Hnutí Starostové a nezávislí – STAN).  The ODS, remembering the embarrassment accompanying Klaus’ re-election as President in February 2008, which absolutely disgusted the public for the wheeler dealing and accusations of foul play, finally gave in to its coalition partners on the issue.

Watch out! Time is short!

The President is not expected to sign constitutional acts, and therefore direct election is more or less a done deed from a legislative perspective. However, an appropriate implementing law has yet to be passed – in this case a special election act for direct presidential election. Adoption of this act requires not a three-fifths majority, but only a majority of over half of all the MPs and Senators present, which should not be a problem.

According to Article 40 of the Constitution, however, the election bill must be passed by both houses of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) in the same wording. In other words, the upper house cannot add draft changes to it and return it to the Chamber of Deputies to be readopted. Put another way, the party leadership of the ČSSD and the coalition parties will have to ensure that “their” legislators do not foil the implementing law for direct presidential elections with any “improvements.” Time, you see, is short!

Klaus’s term ends next year on March 7. In order that the registration of candidates and other procedures on in place so that the election campaign  can be started on time, the implementing act for direct presidential election must take effect by October 1. Any hold-up would render direct election of the next president, which must take place, according to the Constitution, between January 6 and February 5, impossible.

In an extreme case that would mean that Václav Klaus’s mandate would end on March 7 and the following day the Czech Republic would have no president. His duties would pass in part to the prime minister and in part to the Chairperson of Parliament or, in the case of dissolution of Parliament at that time, to the Senate.

There is a plus in that, thank  God, that at least all 79 paragraphs of the implementing bill have already been debated and Interior Minister Jan Kubice (non-aligned) is now submitting them to the government for discussion. So maybe we can make it after all in the one year remaining before the first direct presidential elections.

Voters may be disappointed

A usual question in politics is ‘who gains?’ Supporters of direct election emphasize that citizens' will have more possibility of influencing politics than before. "In this respect, I trust in the people of the Czech Republic, I trust in the electorate, if there are direct elections, to choose their President very responsibly,” said Senator and ČSSD deputy chairman Jiří Dienstbier, Jr. Let us hope so, because in our situation, where the citizens are for the most part disgusted with politics and do not trust politicians, it might turn out otherwise. An especially dangerous situation would come about if such a populist candidate were to reach the second round of a direct election.

Getting the at least 50,000 signatures on the petition sheets, which is the condition for independent candidates who can't take the other route and rally enough lower house MPs or upper house senators, would probably be less easy for a “homo politicus” than, say, a successful TV entertainer, ice-hockey star or maybe the aging pop singer Karel Gott (Apologies, Maestro! It’s only an example), or, worse again, a common or garden populist who knows how to flatter the “masses” or who has the necessary millions to buy support. An especially dangerous situation would come about if such a populist candidate were to reach the second round of a direct election and suceeded in uniting the votes of obscure candidates who fell in the first round against the democratic opponent.

If the citizens expect that a directly elected president would put things to rights, then they would be very disappointed if there were someone sitting at the Castle of a quality two  or three notches below the presidents indirectly elected by Parliament. Yes, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Edvard Beneš, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus all became president through indirect election and also thanks to behind-the-scenes agreements, if not outright hanky panky, but they were, and are, worthy presidents.

A stronger mandate

Let’s be optimistic, though, that at least in the first direct election of the head of state we will take the job seriously and choose one responsibly. How high we set the bar the first time round will, after all, be the standard set for subsequent presidential elections. Everything beyond that is in the realm of the unknown and hides many risks. The fact that the President is elected directly by the populace will automatically give him a much stronger mandate than if he were elected indirectly by the 281 deputies and senators. How high we set the bar the first time round will, after all, be the standard set for subsequent presidential elections. 

This in itself, the sceptics warn, will disturb the hitherto careful balance of the three Constitutional pillars – the power of the legislature, or Parliament; the executive power – the president and the government; and the judiciary. And because the Constitutional system is a closed unit, the stronger the mandate of the president, the weaker the position of the government.

However, since the president does not get greater competence proportional to his wider mandate (from now on he will have to share one right, abolition, or the right to interrupt or halt an already instigated criminal prosecution, with an appointed member of the government). He will not actually be able to take positive advantage of his strong mandate. A significant number of constitutional experts therefore expect that in the presidential campaign and subsequently in the role of head of state, the president will tend to define his position negatively, in particular with respect to the government, with which he shares executive powers.

This would probably not occur if the president elected were someone who, like former ČSSD prime minister Miloš Zeman, is of the opinion that the head of state should unite and not divide society and should engage in a dialogue with the political parties. If, however, the presidential seat is held by a polemical personality with an incorrigible necessity to draw attention to himself and prove his own importance, he will make trouble, for example by ducking his responsibility to appointi or dismiss ministers, ambassadors or judges, refusing to sign bills, intervening in government foreign policy or appointing members of the board  of the Czech National Bank (ČNB) “out of spite.”

Democratic candidates

An obstructive president could do this and many other things without limitation and without the possibility of removal from office.  Even in a case of high treason, the Senate would be incompetent to have him brought before the Constitutional Court by means of a resolution of a bare majority of the senators present.  It would now require a three-fifths majority of all MPs and present senators, which is quite unrealistic. It was therefore not wide of the mark when in a remarkable speech,  actually a philosophical-legal essay, in the February 8 Senate debate, deputy chairman Petr Pithart warned that a directly elected president could one day turn out to be … a Führer! Certainly none of the as yet known, or suspected candidates, to become  Klaus’s successor have ambitions to become a “Führer.”

  • At the very least it would not suit the graceful Jana Bobošíková (Suverenita), who has already announced her candidature.
  • In respect of another confirmed candidate, TOP 09 chairman Karel Schwarzenberg,  fears of dictatorial tendencies are absurd from the great European and defender of human rights.
  • While at core quite different to each other, each of the other adepts of whom mention is made would undoubtedly also make a democratic president: Miloš Zeman, if he decides to run; former PM of the “caretaker” government Jan Fischer, who is putting together his team as an independent candidate; Přemysl Sobotka or Miroslava Němcová of the ODS; Jan Švejnar, Vladimír Špidla and still, apparently, Pavel Rychetský, whose names are being bandied about in the ČSSD, as well as Zuzana Roithová from the Christain Democrats (KDU-ČSL).
  • The Communists are said to be considering the former Soviet-era cosmonaut Vladimír Remek and the post-revolution defense minister General Miroslav Vacek, but during the last presidential election in the end supported the not at all “Red” Jana Bobošíková!
  • Nonetheless, the great unknown will be the independent candidates, especially if in the implementing law a sufficient degree of transparency and restriction of the costs of pre-election campaigns can be pushed through parliament.  This is still a matter for discussion, TOP 09 chief Petr Gazdík confirmed. And indeed why would it not be, when the majority of the parties, including TOP 09, are still strapped for cash after the 2009–2010 campaign and are this year facing important Senate and, especially, regional elections, which will also take their toll?

Putting a ceiling on direct presidential election campaign financing will, however, erase the advantage of the candidates who have strong party backing and therefore gives some of the possibly risky independent candidates a chance of slipping through into the second round. Getting an agreement on such a ceiling in the party-composed parliament, then, will probably not be very easy.

Financial costs

A direct presidential election will, according to the Interior Ministry, cost upwards of Kč 600 million to stage. Democracy is, quite simply, not cheap. Certainly it is a lot more costly than, for example, a dictatorship, which can get by without “elections.” A bigger problem than finding five or six hundred million in the state budget will be the practically unrelenting pre-election tempest that will now grip the country.  Judge for yourselves:

  • In the autumn of 2012 there will be elections for one third of the Senate seats and for the regional councils.
  • At the beginning of 2013 the direct presidential election will take place, with the campaign and two election rounds in winter, possibly in poor  weather, threatening to keep the turnout down .
  • In 2014, the “big” elections should take place in spring for the lower house of parliament and the European Parliament and in the fall for municipalities and one third of the upper house, the Senate.
  • Only in 2015, it seems, will we get a break from elections.
  • In the following year, however, there will again be elections for one third of the Senate seats and for regional councils.

An insufferable round of elections and election campaigns are therefore threatened which will irritate the electorate and probably cause a low turnout. One possible solution would be to hold more of the elections at the same time so as to reduce the number of years when they will take place. But watch out for the unenviable experience of the First Republic! For example, the elections to the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate back then took place simultaneously or with a very short interval. This resulted in an almost identical party profiles for both houses.

While we would save by arranging a number of different types of election at the same time, the party which at that moment was the most popular would stand a chance of sweeeping the field. For the big, ambitious, parties this may be an attractive option, but it’s dangerous for democracy due to the risk of its setting the results in stone.