Constitutional crisis looms as MPs, senators argue over secret ballot

We’ve been talking all week about Friday’s presidential election, when Czech American economist Jan Švejnar will challenge incumbent Václav Klaus for the post. But with hours to go until MPs and senators gather at Prague Castle, a dispute over how to elect the president is threatening to overshadow the entire process, with some talking of a looming constitutional crisis.

The Czech parliament finds itself in the unusual situation where the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and the upper house, the Senate are at loggerheads as to how to elect the president. In past elections, the president was elected in a secret ballot. This time, however, the majority of MPs are in favour of an open ballot, and the majority of senators are in favour of a secret ballot.

If they can’t agree on how to vote – and lawyers differ on whether the lower house has the right to tell the upper house what to do – then Friday’s election has the potential to descend into a long and drawn-out argument over political process which will end with no presidential vote at all. Some warn that the whole thing could culminate in a constitutional crisis.

It might seem incredible that 18 years after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs still haven’t worked out their constitutional system. But this argument is not really about process, it’s about politics.

Václav Klaus
The current division of power in the Czech parliament is such that essentially a candidate can only win if at least some MPs betray their party and vote for the other guy. This can only happen in a secret ballot, because no MP is going to raise his hand and vote for the other guy when all of his colleagues – and the general public - are watching.

In the lower house, the Civic Democrats, who support Václav Klaus, are hoping enough Social Democrat MPs, who are supposed to be voting for Jan Švejnar, will vote for Mr Klaus instead. The easiest way to prevent that from happening is to force an open ballot. This is what the Greens, who support Mr Švejnar, and the Social Democrats, who will be embarrassed if some of their number vote for Mr Klaus, are doing. They appear to be supported by those Christian Democrats who support Mr Švejnar (the party is split between Klaus and Švejnar supporters).

However, it also works the other way round. Jan Švejnar can only be elected if some Civic Democrats vote for him, so it’s not clear whether this strategy will pay off for his supporters. A big unknown is the Communists, who will announce later on Thursday whether they want a secret ballot or not. There are also talks planned for Thursday evening between the leaders of the coalition parties. They might be able to pull something out of the hat at the last moment.

Jan Švejnar,  photo: CTK
If they can’t, Friday’s election will end in stalemate. There would almost certainly be no vote, just a lot of talk about political process. In the worst-case scenario, the whole matter would go to the Constitutional Court. Some politicians are warning darkly that the issue could even bring about the end of the ruling coalition.

It probably won’t come to that. But the whole secret ballot issue is a touchy question. As Senate chairman Přemysl Sobotka put it – the Roman Senate argued for four hundred years over the fairest and most democratic form of electoral process, and came up with the secret ballot. Hopefully, he said, Czechs aren’t about to have the same debate.