Czech MPs approve direct presidential election

After years of debate, the lower house of the Czech Parliament on Wednesday voted in favour of direct presidential elections. A last-minute deal between the coalition and the opposition Social Democrats ensured sufficient support for the motion; if approved by the Senate, it will allow Czechs to elect their president directly for the first time in 2013 when Václav Klaus leaves office.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
The lower house of Parliament gave a hearty round of applause when the speaker announced the results of the vote – 159 out of 192 MPs present supported an amendment to the Czech Constitution paving the way for direct presidential elections.

In the two decades since the idea first emerged, direct presidential elections have become a notorious issue on the Czech political scene. All parties declared support for the change to the Czech constitutional system but they could never quite agree on the details, killing the bill each time it reached the Chamber of Deputies. But on Wednesday, a last minute deal between the coalition parties and the opposition Social Democrats ensured sufficient support for the motion which will now go to the Senate.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
After the vote, Social Democrat leader Bohuslav Sobotka said he would ask Social Democrat members of the Senate – where the opposition party has a majority – to support the amendment as well.

“As the chair of the Social Democrats, I will recommend our senators to support this constitutional amendment. This is in line with our party’s leadership which earlier recommended both Social Democrat MPs and Senators to vote in favour of direct presidential elections.”

According to the bill, the Czech president will be elected for a five-year term in a two-round voting system. If no candidate gains over 50 percent of votes in the first round, two candidates with the highest number of votes will advance to the second.

To enter the race candidates will need to gain support from at least 50,000 Czech citizens over the age of 18 or 20 MPs or ten Senators. The bill also extends the possibility of having the president removed from office.

The Senate
The Social Democrats voted in favour of the bill after coalition MPs in turn supported two of their proposals aimed at limiting the presidential powers. The president’s penal immunity will be limited to his or her time in office, and the president’s power to stop criminal prosecution will be subject to a countersignature by the prime minister or another member of the government.

The MPs clashed over the president’s right to appoint board members of the Czech National Bank. The lower house eventually rejected a Social Democrat proposal to subject these appointments to the approval of the prime minister as well.

However, the bill was passed by a great majority of MPs – with the exception of the communists. Political analyst Petr Just believes the reason why direct presidential elections were not introduced earlier has to do with Civic Democrats’ concerns that Václav Klaus would not stand much chance in a popular vote.

“Throughout the 1990s and up till now, the Civic Democrats always rejected direct presidential elections. This was mostly due to the fact that they were not sure Václav Klaus would win, and they thought he stood a better chance in a indirect vote.”

Václav Klaus
That proved true when Václav Klaus was elected by both chambers of Parliament in 2003 and re-elected in 2008. As he cannot run for a third term, Mr Just believes the Civic Democrats decided to comply with public opinion and support a direct vote for Václav Klaus’ successor.

Commentators note that a directly elected president with slightly modified powers will not change the Czech Republic’s political system. But they are also cautious about the final outcome of the initiative as Social Democrat senators might want to revive some of the proposals rejected on Wednesday by the lower house which would effectively kill the bill once again.