Presidential elections back in the limelight

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The question whether or not the Czech president should be elected in a direct vote has become one of the hot issues of the election campaign for the summer parliamentary elections in the Czech Republic. The right-of-centre Civic Democrats and the Communist party are strictly opposed to the idea, while the Social Democrats and the right-of-centre two party coalition find it acceptable and are dangling the notion before the eyes of voters much like the proverbial carrot. Daniela Lazarova has the story.

Political analysts themselves are very much at odds over the wisdom of combining a parliamentary democracy with a strong, directly elected head of state. Prof. Erazim Kohak is convinced such a move could only benefit democracy in this country:

"I believe that democracy means rule by all and not by several only: therefore the more people can participate in governing themselves the more democratic the society. I do not believe in elite-rule. The Civic Democratic Party does. And, given what I know about our party system, I believe that having a president independent of the parties is an excellent idea.

Would you change the president's powers along with that or would you leave them as they are?

"I believe the Czech president needs to have more power, more possibilities to initiate legislation and generally more rather than less powers.

Would that not create more friction and clashes, with the President pulling in one direction and Parliament in another?

"Well, of course, and that is called checks and balances."

Not everyone shares this view. Vaclav Zak, editor in chief of the political bi-monthly Listy, thinks that drawn out clashes such as we have seen between the President and Parliament over the appointment of the Central Bank Governor, judges and ambassadors have not benefited the Czech Republic in the least. In his view, combining a parliamentary democracy with a classic presidential system could only bring trouble and strife.

"The Czech president is -contrary to public opinion - a strong president. And if such a strong president were elected in direct elections the possibility of conflicts between the President and Parliament or Government would be very high. And I think that if the President is elected by the Parliament, by political consensus, there is a greater chance that that such conflicts would not happen. I feel that this is very important for Czech democracy at the present time.

So why do you think that three political parties - the Social Democrats and the Two Party Coalition have now come out so strongly in favour of a direct election of the head of state?

"It is very simple. Opinion polls show that 80% of Czechs support a direct election of the head of state - so it quite clear why they are doing so at this particular time."

Why do you think that so many Czechs favour a direct vote?

"Because the public trust in Parliament is very low in this country. People do not trust political parties and politicians. Now granted that Czech political parties are not deserving of the Nobel prize -but they are not as bad as they are made out to be. I think that the general opinion about political parties is somewhat unfair..."

So, the public feels that they would make a better job of electing the next president but you do not feel that to be the case?

"Definitely, that is the case."

Well, voters may like the idea - and it seems that president Vaclav Havel does as well - but it is almost certain that his successor will not be elected in a direct ballot. No matter how the parliamentary elections turn out, the proposed bill is unlikely to make it through both chambers of Parliament in time for the January 2003 Presidential elections.