Czech Parliament passes direct presidential elections

The Czech Senate, photo: CTK

Czech citizens themselves will choose their next president in 2013 for the first time in history. After years of public and partisan discussion, and five final hours of heated debate on Wednesday, the Czech Senate passed a Constitutional amendment allowing direct election of the head of state by the people. As the current president, Václav Klaus, who called direct elections a "fatal mistake", is unable to veto a constitutional amendment, I asked political scientist Jan Outlý of the University of Hradec Králové if anything at all can stop direct presidential elections now.

The Czech Senate,  photo: CTK
“I think it has gone too far now to be stopped. We can see that some politicians are even surprised that it has come so far. So I don’t believe there is anything that can stop direct elections at this stage.”

How will it work in practical terms? In the United States for example, campaigning begins almost two years before the election. When is campaigning likely to begin in the Czech Republic?

“Well that’s something that we have to wait for, no one can say today. In my opinion, five or six months in advance is the minimum for a candidate to run a successful campaign.

The change in the method of election means a drastic change in the chances of the candidates announced so far – we could speculate for example that TOP 09 chairman Karel Schwarzenberg would have had an upwards battle in Parliamentary elections but much better chances in a direct election. Who does the new system favour, in your opinion?

Karel Schwarzenberg
“In my opinion we will have two types of candidates. The first type will be candidates connected to political parties. It is quite difficult to run a nationwide campaign without the support of a strong institution like a political party. The second type of candidates will be independents, people who have enough money to run their own campaign. I believe the first type of candidates will be more successful. I think that political parties are such established institutions in the Czech Republic that they will be able to create campaigns that contact people better, that allow the candidates to have better organisational bases, which is something that I believe will be more important than money. In a situation where we have for example five to seven candidates, I think this is more important than simply the amount of money in a campaign.”

Direct election of the president remained a controversial issue right up to the end. As a political scientist, what is your own opinion on the decision?

“In terms of the influence on the political system, I am convinced it is not a good step. Direct election of the president will lead to the government being weaker than it is tzodya. We can see that even with the quite weak powers that the president possesses today, he can still play quite an important role in the system. Depending on his or her personality, the president is currently able to force the government to do things that he or she supports. And if presidential powers are not weakened, then the president will become an extremely strong player in the system.”

Why would that necessarily be a bad thing when twelve other EU countries already have elected heads of state (seven other are monarchies)?

“Such things cannot be transported from one country to another; you always have to consider the conditions and the political culture in the country. We probably do not have many countries in Europe where a weak president would be able to force the prime minister to block an international treaty, for example, which is the case with the euro negotiations today. We cannot see any other example under a strong parliamentary system where the prime minister would resolve a coalition crisis with the president. So in the Czech Republic we should consider the tradition that has developed in politics, and that tradition means that the president has always been considered a strong player and an authority who can influence politics quite a lot, and if such an actor is elected directly, their role will be strengthened even further, which is not good for the system.”