Presidential pair go to the polls

Vaclav Havel, photo: CTK

One of the first people to vote as the polls opened in Prague on Friday afternoon was President Havel. In glorious spring sunshine, David Vaughan joined hordes of other journalists in a suburban primary school to wait for the presidential pair to turn up. He didn't have to wait long. At two fifteen Mr and Mrs Havel entered polling booth, and the camera shutters began to click.

Vaclav Havel,  photo: CTK
"And President Havel has now come to vote in the primary school in Orechovka, in the residential district of Prague 6, and he's surrounded by photographers. And his wife Dasa has just voted as well. She's put her vote into the ballot box, and they're both elegantly dressed for this solemn act of casting their vote."

And that was that. Unlike in previous elections, President Havel didn't have anything more than smiles for passing journalists. The presidential cavalcade swept away in the spring sunshine as fast as it had come. But in the cozy surroundings of the Orechovka primary school, with its bright green curtains and the Czech coat of arms on two large ballot boxes there was a reassuring sense that democracy was having its day. I spoke to some of Mr Havel's neighbours in Prague 6, as they emerged from the polling station.

"I was surprised how many people have turned up to vote today," this woman in her sixties told me. "I even had the chance to exchange a few words with the president. I said I'd pray for him, and he thanked me."

This gentleman turned up with his Dachshund. "My wife and I are taking it in turns to vote," he told me, "because dogs aren't allowed in the polling station. Voting these days is something quite normal. We're delighted that we can vote freely, but it's become part of our everyday life."

A part of our everyday lives it may be, but perhaps we shouldn't be too complacent. It's easy to forget that there have only been free elections in the Czech Republic for the last 12 years. If we go back one year beyond that President Havel was in prison for stating views that many Czechs today would take for granted.