Politicians promise the people will elect their next president

Jan Švejnar (left) and Václav Klaus

With just days to go to the February 8 presidential elections speculation as to who will lead the country in the next five years has reached fever pitch. More than ever the Czech public has been drawn into the presidential election campaign. Challenger Jan Švejnar has been on a campaign trail around the country and even the incumbent Václav Klaus has made more public appearances than he did in the last elections. A televised debate between the two candidates drew enormous interest. Everything points to the fact that Czechs are following the elections closely and opinion polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of Czechs would like to elect the president in a direct vote.

Prague Castle - Seat of the President of the Czech Republic
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 direct presidential elections has been very much on the agenda with most parliamentary parties saying they wish to comply with the view of the general public. Originally the idea was that the 2008 election would be a direct ballot. But somehow or other the proposed amendments to the law never made it through Parliament. Now politicians promise that the next time around the decision will really be in the hands of the public. However not everyone is happy with the turn of affairs. Minister Cyril Svoboda, of the Christian Democrats is one of the politicians who would like to maintain the status quo saying that such a change to the constitution will not be easy.

“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 presents 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.”

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

Jiří Čunek
“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.”

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 Jiří Čunek says now is the time to act.

“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.”

The Social Democrats have been very consistent on the question of direct presidential elections ever since their party was re-established in 1990. Leader Jiří 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.”

Mirek Topolánek (left) and Martin Bursík, photo: CTK
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.

Jiří Paroubek
Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek has a different opinion. He says “if something ain’t broken don’t fix it”.

“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 direct presidential elections, 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 them. But it is altogether something else to risk losing the influence the current voting system grants even the smallest parties. Political scientist Vladimíra Dvořáková.

“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.”