Czech elections

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Sun Nov 3 12:51:05 MST 2002

After the philosopher-king

People show political maturity in desire to vote for their president

By Arie Farnam
For The Prague Post
(October 30, 2002)

Oh, how we shall miss Vaclav Havel -- if not only for what he is, then
perhaps more intensely for what he is not. He is not a president chosen by
petty political designs or for his own thirst for power and fame. Whatever
mistakes he may have made during this past decade (and any human being
surely must have made several), he has been a symbol of the Czech
consciousness and a voice of reason for the nation. He has provided the very
ideal of the European figurehead presidency.

Because Havel was not a politician when he came to office, he was not
plagued by the undercurrents of politics. He was above it all, so his
decisions, if not always politically popular, have never been discredited.
The citizens of the Czech Republic must count themselves lucky to have been
given such a lengthy reprieve from the common ills of democracy. Sadly, they
must now resign themselves to ordinary political squabbling.

The succession is looming. Each major party has its candidate for the
supposedly nonpartisan presidency. It is generally accepted that the next
president will be one supported by one of the major political parties. In
the words of commentators in the Czech press, the best we can hope for is a
"little gray mouse" or a "well-behaved monkey," someone who will fade into
the background, entertain foreign dignitaries and please the political

For the past two years, we have lived with the not-too-unlikely threat that
Vaclav Klaus might take the Castle. He is a gray figure, smelling sourly of
the past, but not exactly the sort to fade into the background. He is highly
experienced in the game of political favors and has proved time and again
that his first loyalty is his own ambition.

Although admittedly none of the other candidates are much better, Klaus is
the textbook example of an opportunist. For example, he has suddenly turned
his party's policies on their head for the sake of his presidential bid.
Under the current constitution, the Czech president is not elected by the
people, but by the Parliament. Klaus' Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has long
held that this is a necessary part of European democracy by representation.
But after conducting a few polls, ODS party analysts have realized that
Klaus has alienated enough parliamentarians with his antics that his only
chance of being elected president would be if the public gets the vote,
preferably only a single round with lots of other weak candidates.

Polls show that the majority of Czechs have long favored the direct election
of the president. Certainly, there are good arguments for it. A president
elected by the Parliament will necessarily be a political animal. No one
elected by the highly divisive representatives of political parties can, for
a moment, forget what powerful interests raised him.

On the other hand, the general public tends to vote either by political
party or on the basis of such characteristics as good looks. Pure and direct
democracy bears the disadvantage that most of the population does not have
the time or interest to think about the symbolic nature of a good president.
Still, the will of the people is now clear. They want to vote for their own
symbol, imperfect as he may be.

Mlada fronta Dnes recently published its own poll concerning the current
political debate stirred up by ODS's quick change of heart on the direct
election issue. The results show that while the majority of Czechs would
like to elect their president directly, most of them want a direct election
next time, not now. A direct presidential election this winter would require
a quick change of the constitution, and the Czech public is admirably aware
of the dangers of hastily tampering with that document. The poll also
indicates that most voters would like a two-round election.

In a single-round election, the candidate with the largest party and the
strongest propaganda machine is likely to take the vote, even if most of the
population does not support him. With his ties to powerful media outlets,
this is the theory Klaus is banking on.

By contrast, in a two-round election the top two candidates must undergo a
second round of voting, unless one wins more than 50 percent of the total
vote from the outset. Voters who originally voted for small parties get a
chance to choose between the two strongest candidates, with an outcome that
the winner may well be the candidate most acceptable to the public rather
than the most popular.

The poll has calmed my worst fears. I am impressed that most Czech voters
actually know the important difference between a one-round and a two-round
vote. Obviously, they need no lessons in democracy. They may not get another
poet-president, but they will probably not get Klaus either, as only 28
percent of those polled would support him.

In any case, whoever does take the Castle will have a very tough act to

-- The writer is a Prague-based free-lance writer and documentary filmmaker.
She is a frequent contributor to these pages.

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