Controversy at the eleventh hour: some deputies propose electing president by acclamation

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

On February 8th the two houses of Parliament will convene to elect a new head of state and the days leading up to the vote are marked by increased tension on the Czech political scene as deputies and senators make up their minds who they are going to support – the current president Václav Klaus or his sole rival, Czech-American economics professor Jan Švejnar. Moreover political parties are now caught up in a heated debate as to whether the vote should take place by secret ballot or by the open raising of hands.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
In the Czech Republic the election of the head of state is essentially a political decision. Although the president has no real powers and decision-making is in the hands of the government and parliament, each party wants to have its own person at Prague Castle. Since none of them are strong enough to achieve this on their own, the process is inevitably accompanied by a great deal of horse-trading behind the scenes and, since the president is elected by secret ballot, nothing is certain. The leaderships of political parties issue a recommendation but it is up to each deputy and senator to make the final decision. The Christian Democrats, who have come under fire for allegedly attempting to trade their votes in return for an agreement on the restitution of church property, have now suggested that Parliament should break with tradition and vote by acclamation in order to make the vote more transparent. Lubomír Zaorálek of the Social Democrats says his party may support such a proposal:

“As things are, the process is not transparent. We suspect there is much horse trading going on behind the scenes and we feel that in this case the call for a public vote – a vote by acclamation – is justified.”

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
The ruling Civic Democratic Party which is backing its own Václav Klaus, and has sought support for him among Christian Democrat and Communist deputies, says this is not a good idea. The Civic Democrats could easily overturn such a proposal in the Senate where they have a majority, but the Christian and Social Democrats could push it through in the lower house. Although theoretically it is possible for one house to vote by acclamation and the other by secret ballot Vojtěch Cepl, a legal expert on constitutional matters and indeed one of the authors of the constitution, says this would not be a good idea:

“The president is elected at a joint session of the two houses of Parliament, and I think that in such a case common sense dictates that they should agree on how they want to vote.”

Some analysts note that a failure to reach agreement on this important point could threaten the vote itself, but politicians say they will secure a dignified vote next Friday, even if it means making a last minute compromise on how the vote should take place. Meanwhile, the two rivals for the post have taken turns visiting individual party groups in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate in an attempt to win over more supporters but both are saying they want nothing to do with the horse-trading going on behind the scenes. President Klaus’ secretary Ladislav Jakl told reporters that the president had no information how he stood in terms of support, while Prof. Švejnar himself asked deputies and senators to forget about horse-trading and vote for “the better man”.