Chamber overrules Havel veto of controversial electoral law

So the lower house of Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, has overridden President Vaclav Havel's veto of controversial changes to the Czech electoral law. The new legislation, forced through parliament by the two largest parties, the main opposition Civic Democratic Party and the ruling Social Democrats, changes how the lower house is elected in a way that favours larger parties over small ones. The amendment has had many opponents, including President Havel. But their protests have been ignored by the two parties, and their last hope of blocking the changes lies with the Constitutional Court. For more here's Rob Cameron.

The changes are the brainchild of Vaclav Klaus's right-of-centre Civic Democrats, who claim the amendment will bring greater political stability and ease the task of forming majority coalition governments. The law does not, as has been mistakenly claimed, introduce elements of the first-past-the-post system to the Czech Republic. Instead it retains the number of seats in the lower house - 200 - but raises the number of electoral districts from eight to 35. This means that only a few candidates from parties with the highest proportion of the vote in a given district will win seats, and smaller parties may not be allocated any. Under the previous system, about 25 candidates came from each district, which meant that parties with a smaller proportion of the vote could win seats as well.

The remaining parties in parliament, the Communists and a coalition of four right-of-centre parties, have cried foul. They say the changes are designed to squeeze them out of parliament. They point to an amendment which tightens rules for pre-election coalitions, setting the nationwide threshold for winning representation in the Chamber of Deputies at five percent per party in a coalition - meaning that the four-party coalition would need to garner 20 percent of the national vote to enter parliament. A single party needs just five percent.

Changing the electoral law was one of the key points of a power-sharing deal struck by the minority Social Democrat Cabinet and the Civic Democrats. The deal has kept the minority government in power since inconclusive early elections in 1998. But many observers claim the Social Democrats don't know what they're getting themselves into. If their poll ratings remain around 15 percent, they could be hit badly by the new rules when election time comes around in 2002. Others believe they're banking on an economical revival and an improvement in popular support as the country comes closer to joining the European Union.

The smaller parties say they will now file a complaint with the Constitutional Court - their last chance at stopping the amendment from going through. The two larger parties say they're being childish - "if they want to go to the Constitutional Court, let them go," Civic Democrat leader Vaclav Klaus told reporters. He seems unruffled at the prospect, reflecting the two parties' confidence that the Court will not find the amendment unconstitutional.