Parliament approves new election law "everyone can live with"

On Thursday the lower house of parliament finally approved an amended version of a controversial election law, settling on a compromise which all the parties - except the Communists - say they can live with. The legislation is the work of the country's two largest parties, and when they first submitted the bill last year, they described it as a bid to introduce greater political stability to the Czech Republic. The smaller parties didn't see it that way - they said it was an attempt to stifle the country's fledgling democracy, and took the bill to the Constitutional Court. Now it's back, but is it fair? Daniela Lazarova has more.

The bill was penned by the ruling Social Democrats and the opposition Civic Democrats, who used their majority in the lower house to amend the legislation to work in favour of stronger parties. The right-of-centre Civic Democrats, gearing up for a comeback in next year's general elections, were keen to prepare the ground for a landslide victory, and made this one of the conditions for supporting the Social Democrats through this term in office.

The bill was approved by the lower house, but the opposition Four-Party Coalition took it to the Constitutional Court on the grounds that it gave bigger parties an unfair advantage. The Court ruled in their favour, sending the law back to the lower house. At this point it was a question of reaching agreement, or putting the 2002 general elections in jeopardy. After much wheeling and dealing, the parties settled on a compromise which, ironically, is not far removed from the old election law.

"Nobody gained much but nobody lost out either" is how one commentator described the election law saga. "We're back to square one" is what the morning papers said. One important aspect of the law is that it will - apparently - continue to produce coalition governments. And political analyst Jiri Pehe says this is a good thing, because the country is simply not ready for a two-party system."

"Well, I would simply say that Czech politicians must learn the art of creating coalitions because it would be very unusual in a European parliamentary system to have only two parliamentary parties. Such a system exists only in Great Britain where they have a majority system. Elsewhere in Europe they have multiple party systems and politicians have had to learn how to put together coalitions. Unfortunately Czech politicians have been very quarrelsome and really unable to reach compromises, but the fact that they have reached a compromise on this very important election law may be a good sign."

So you are happy with the law as it stands now ?

"Yes, I am happy with it simply because I think that the Czech Republic is not ready for a majority system because for a two party system you need a strong civil society, independent courts and other independent institutions since only one party governs for four years and there must be some opposition to that party. I don't think Czech civil society is ready for that role. Another reason why I welcome the law is that the previous law, the one abolished by the Constitutional Court, pretended to be proportional while it had strong majority features. If approved it would have given us a very strange system of two very strong parties such as the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats and a weak third party which could swing decisions one way or another. The system we will have now will be much more natural."

Political analyst Jiri Pehe, ending that report on the newly approved election law - which still has to go to the Senate and President Vaclav Havel.