31 years since Václav Havel was first elected Czechoslovak president

Václav Havel, Olga Havlová, photo: Ondřej Němec, CC BY-SA 4.0

It is exactly 31 years since Václav Havel became Czechoslovak president. The dissident was unanimously elected by a Federal Assembly largely thanks to the country’s then Communist prime minister and opinion polls at the time did not suggest that he was a favourite. He said the event reminded him of an absurd drama.

The Czechoslovak Communist regime began falling apart quickly after the events of November 17, when a brutal police crackdown on student protestors ushered in the events known as the Velvet Revolution.

Less than a month after the demonstration, Gustáv Husák, who had been serving as president for more than 14 years, abdicated. That same day, on December 10, a public demonstration was held on Wenceslas Square on the occasion of Human Rights Day. Actor Jiří Bartoška proposed to the crowd that Havel should become the new president.

Alexander Dubček in 1989,  photo: Czech Television

“The Czechoslovak Republic must never again become an instrument or even the property of one political party. This is an ongoing task and one which is extremely important in the preparation of free elections. The Civic Forum and the Public Against Violence organisations believe that Václav Havel is the man best suited to be impartial and have the moral ability to withstand the pressures of our current situation. He has already proven that he is competent, decisive, tolerant and that he has a clear vision for the future of Czechoslovakia.”

Despite this show of public support, it was far from clear that Havel would become president. Alexander Dubček, the former leader of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring who had strong support among the Slovak part of the population, was also running for the office.

Furthermore, the election itself would have to be decided by a parliament (Federal Assembly) made up of largely Communist MP’s who had been voted in when the ballots were still dictated by the Communist Party.

They actually wanted the public to vote for the future Czechoslovak head of state, because opinion polls were showing that one of their own, the former Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec was far in the lead, with Havel trailing in fourth place and still little known among the wider segments of the population.

For their part, both Dubček and Havel stressed to each other that they would only serve as interim presidents until the free elections, but neither was willing to budge.

The situation ended up being resolved by Marián Čalfa, the Communist prime minister who was leading the temporary government of national unity at the time. Reportedly a grey eminence well aquatinted with the constitutional system, Čalfa met in a private meeting where he proposed a compromise. Alexander Dubček would be elected as the Chairman of the Federal Assembly after which Havel would be named as the only presidential candidate.

Marián Čalfa,  photo: Czech Television

The deal went ahead and Havel was elected unanimously on December 29. Dubček is said to have been visibly hit by the fact he had not been chosen as president and it was the orchestrator of the whole event, Marián Čalfa, who introduced the new Czechoslovak head of state.

“Václav Havel is the most important contemporary representative of the fight for morality in democratic politics. His life serves as an example for standing up for one’s own views despite persecution.”

Havel then took his presidential oath and, shortly thereafter, stepped onto the balcony of Prague Castle to address a crowd of several thousands who were cheering: “Long live the president”.

“Dear friends, just a moment ago, the Federal Assembly unanimously elected me president of our republic. I thank all of you, whether Czechs, Slovaks, or members of other nationalities, for your support. I promise that I will not let you down and will guide this country towards free elections.”

At that time Havel still thought he would only serve as an interim president, but he ended up holding the office until 2003. He was elected four times in total, twice as president of Czechoslovakia and twice as president of the Czech Republic. Dubček served as the chairman of the Federal Assembly until 1992, that same year he died in a car crash.