Direct presidential election passed for further debate in lower house

A government proposal seeking direct, popular election of the Czech president made it through the lower house of Parliament on Tuesday – a significant success for an idea that lawmakers have dealt with eight times already. Nevertheless, while the coalition and the opposition may have reached a rare consensus for the time being, any such change to the constitution remains fraught by the fact that each party envisions very different conditions for popular elections, and many pundits and political scientists see the popular issue as a non-starter. Professor Jiří Pehe of New York University, for one, tells me the prospect of direct presidential elections is science fiction. I asked him why.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“I think the proposal to change the constitution so that the president can be elected directly has been a smokescreen from the beginning. I think the political parties realised after the last election of the president that it was an undignified spectacle that really irritated the public, and so they decided – basically all of them – that they should start discussing direct election of the president. But at the same time I think that none of the major parties really meant it seriously, and it’s been clear over the last four years that this discussion will not produce a constitutional amendment, simply because the devil is in the detail. And so while all the parties agree in general that there should be direct election of the president, at the same time they have convenient excuses why it really is not possible and why they cannot agree with the other parties.”

So you feel that their hearts aren’t really in it. What evidence of that is there?

Václav Klaus
“Before the current government coalition submitted their own proposal, there was a proposal from the Social Democratic Party in Parliament, and it was clearly not overly ideological or offensive – it was something that the coalition could have worked with. But the coalition decided to produce its own draft, and this draft differed from what the Social Democrats had proposed. So it was clear to someone like myself, who has followed Czech politics for a long time, that this is just a pretext for not approving this constitutional amendment, that the political parties actually like this current system, in which they can make all kinds of deals behind the scenes, tied to the election of the president, and then come up with their own candidate.”

A number of political scientists are opposed to the direct election of the president outright. Are you amongst them, and if so, why?

“Well, I’m of two minds. First, in general, I don’t think there is any real need to introduce the direct election of the president in the Czech Republic, which is sort of a classical parliamentary democracy, and we can see what kinds of problems we have even now, when the president is elected by the parliament. So in my opinion it would probably be better not only to have a president elected by the Parliament, but a president with fewer and more clearly defined powers. On the other hand, if you look at the way in which the president was elected, not only in 2008 but also in 2003, it was really a farce. It was clear that the Czech political parties are really unable to come up with compromises, they cannot come up with one or two candidates and then elect the president in the dignified manner that such an election would deserve. So what we really witnessed in 2003 was a farce in which Mr Klaus was elected after nine attempts, and the last time it was after three attempts, there were all kinds of behind-the-scenes deals and so on. So I think it would be better to have direct election of the president just to remove this kind of behaviour, and I think that would be the only reason to introduce such elections at the current time.”