Direct presidential vote remains an open issue in Czech politics

Direct presidential elections has become an evergreen topic for Czech politicians. Every time the current presidential term is coming to an end, they start debating whether the Czech president should be elected directly, by all Czech voters. Last week, the Senate held a conference that revealed the positions of the five Czech parliamentary political parties on the issue. Did it also throw more light on the question of whether Czech presidents will be elected by the people?

In the next presidential elections in February 2008, 280 Czech deputies and senators will decide if the incumbent Vaclav Klaus stays in office for another five years, or whether someone else will take his place. Since 1918, when independent Czechoslovakia was founded, the president of the country has always been elected indirectly, by the joint assembly of the two chambers of Parliament. Ever since the Czech Republic was established in 1993, however, the topic of a direct vote for president has been coming up on the Czech political scene, with most parties wishing to comply with the view of the general public; polls suggest most Czechs would like to vote directly on their president.

Minister Cyril Svoboda, of the Christian Democrats, was one of the organizers of the conference held in the Senate. In his opening speech, Mr Svoboda explained that calls to change the constitution regarding the way the president is elected have not always been motivated by concerns of bringing the office closer to the people.

Cyril Svoboda
"For some of those within Czech society who would like to introduce the direct vote, the underlying motif is the experience with the last vote that took place in 2003. This problematic experience with the last vote is not, and cannot be, an argument for the direct vote for president. One relatively complicated presidential vote cannot justify such a fundamental change to the constitutional order of the Czech Republic."

Cyril Svoboda also presented another major argument against the establishment of direct presidential elections. In his opinion, it is not just a matter of altering the way the president is elected. The change implies much deeper consequences.

"The only constitutional body that derives its legitimacy directly from the people is the parliament. All the other constitutional processes are bound to parliament's legitimacy. The powers of the various constitutional bodies, including the president, are derived from this concept. The president is moreover conceived as a part of the executive power. The three powers are each represented by two institutions. The legislative power is represented by the two chambers of parliament; the executive power is performed by the government and the president, while the judicial power is represented by the Supreme and Constitutional Courts. If we adopt the idea that the president is elected directly, we would have to revise the constitutional competences of the president, who would become the other directly legitimized holder of power. That would necessarily lead to the strengthening of his powers in relation to the other constitutional bodies."

Martin Bursik
This view was rejected by some of the other party leaders, including Martin Bursik, the head of the Green Party. Citing the most significant argument of the direct vote supporters, Mr Bursik says that direct presidential elections would mean more democracy and higher involvement of the public in politics.

"The establishment of a direct vote would bring the president closer to citizens. He would acquire a new and a strong kind of legitimacy and become more independent of party agreements. If the president is to play a uniting role in the society, it is without any doubt better if he or she represents the majority of citizens, rather than current political and personal conditions in the Czech Parliament."

Jiri Cunek
Another argument presented by the Green Party chairman is that in the long term, most Czechs do wish to elect their president themselves. In this the Greens have the same opinion as another of the ruling coalition parties, the Christian Democrats, whose chairman Jiri Cunek says the time is now to start acting.

"Much more important is the fact that for the first time we are in a situation when the majority of the parliamentary political parties have clearly declared their intentions to replace an indirect vote of the president for a direct one. The ruling coalition of the Civic Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Green Party has promised that it will start a debate on altering the constitution so that the president is elected directly."

Jiri Paroubek
The Social Democrats have been very consistent on the question of direct presidential elections ever since their party was re-established in 1990. Leader Jiri Paroubek said that a Social Democratic expert committee prepared a document summing up their party's attitude.

"The document was based on the following principles: first, the Social Democrats will propose and support such changes to the Constitution that will lead to direct presidential elections. Second, we refuse any erosion of the principles of parliamentary democracy through the strengthening of presidential powers. Third, we will support a limitation of presidential power or, if it coincides with political agreements, keeping the presidential powers at their present level."

In a subsequent inner-party referendum on this study, 86 % of Social Democrats expressed support for a direct vote of the president, while almost all of them, 95 %, rejected the idea of the president being endowed with more powers.

Mirek Topolanek
Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek has a different opinion. If things work, he says, there is no reason to change them.

"These are two questions: my position and the position of my party. Members of my party do not have strong opinion on either the direct or indirect vote of the president. It is perhaps half and half. My position is not to change the system now that is functioning and that is traditional in the Czech Republic. But we are prepared to start discussions with other political parties about this issue and possibly change it. But the debate is not so simple and not so short."

It would appear nothing stands in the way of a direct vote for president, especially with the Communists saying that they would support such a proposal. But it is one thing to debate these proposals and discuss the various academic issues related to it. It is another thing to risk losing the influence the current voting system grants even the smallest parties. Political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova.

"I think that the problem is the same for all the political parties. They are not sure what the impact would be; they are not sure who the candidates might be. Nobody knows what the position of the political parties will be for the next elections. We don't know who would run; we don't know how the voters would behave. They may prefer someone who is not a member of a political party, they may also vote for someone from one of the small political parties. They might not want a president from a strong party. This is something very difficult to predict because such elections have never been held. So I think that all the parties a little worried about what would happen."