Cabinet proposes changes to constitution to pave way for direct presidential elections

The government is showing it is prepared to keep its word: after the frustration of two deadlocks and a final down-the-wire result in presidential elections this year, the cabinet has confirmed it is prepared to make changes in the constitution to replace the parliamentary system with a direct vote. That is a move supported by most of the electorate, as well as politicians, including President Vaclav Klaus himself.

The dust has long settled on the business of this year's elections, now the focus has turned to the future: the cabinet intending the country see its first direct presidential elections in five year's time. On Wednesday members of the government agreed on a proposal for necessary changes to the constitution that would open the way for the direct vote. Until now the Czech president had always been elected by a majority in both houses of parliament. Earlier this year, that led to unprecedented deadlock. But, things should be about to change. Backing for the direct vote in parliament has generally been high. Political analyst Vaclav Zak confirms the government is keeping its earlier pledge:

"The government promised that they would do it, you see... To change the constitution is a very complicated task because you must re-define the competency of the president for the direct elections, so it was extremely difficult to do it in a very short time. The government promised after the elections they would prepare changes to the constitution so that the next president would be elected by direct elections."

While the proposed changes would see the largest constitutional amendment since the founding of the Czech Republic, Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky has said it would not involve complex revision. In his words the changes would simply fulfil the cabinet's agenda. What the proposal needs to gain now: a three-fifth majority in both houses of parliament in order to pass. But, it will not all be plain sailing. A second aspect of the changes being proposed by the government includes a shortening of immunity for MPs and senators. Currently immunity is enjoyed for life, the proposal recommends that be shortened to the length of their electoral terms. That aspect of the proposal, say Vaclav Zak, is highly unlikely to pass.

"Immunity doesn't only concern members of the Senate but both houses - the Lower Chamber and Upper Chamber as well. And, you know, we inherited it according to the constitution from the First Republic, when it was reasonable because the government was hostile towards MPs in Austria - the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, now the MPs and senators really wouldn't be glad to get rid of their privileges, and it will be really difficult to convince both houses to change the immunity concept. But, it must be attempted."

For the time being then, the government has agreed. It will be interesting to see how parliament debates the issue, to see which changes will ultimately be implemented. Whatever the final wording passed, most pundits are confidant that come elections Czechs will be casting their votes for the very first time, to decide who will lead their country next.