Senate could play a stronger role but not without changes, says political analyst Pehe

Senate, photo: Krokodyl, CC BY-SA 3.0

Voters in the Czech Republic are going to the polls on Friday and Saturday in the second round of elections to the upper chamber of Parliament. But traditionally turn-out to the Senate has been far lower than in the general election and many voters in the past certainly felt that the Senate elections “didn’t matter”.

Senate, photo: Krokodyl, CC BY-SA 3.0
I asked political analyst Jiří Pehe some of the reasons why and what would be needed for that to change.

“I think there are two basic reasons why the Senate is seen as weak or by its harshest critics even as a ‘useless’ institution. One is that after the Czech Republic was founded it took lawmakers a long time to actually create the Senate even though its existence was written into the country’s Constitution. The reason for that was that it suited a lot of politicians in the lower house to have the kind of power they would not have had if the Senate had already been in place. The Senate was substituted by the lower house over that period, so it was not in their interests to create the Senate quickly.

“The second reason, is that the powers of the Senate as written are quite weak. While it is an institution which can under some circumstances block bills from the lower house, if we are talking about constitutional bills and changes to the electoral law. But otherwise its vetoes or rejections can be easily overturned and that is something which is fairly obvious to the public.”

I suppose it has been argued that despite those powers being written as they are, the Senate could or should still play a strong moral role. One could see that through someone like its first chairman Petr Pithart. That is also part of the argument behind this sort of call for strong personalities, which we heard many times in the past…

Jiří Pehe, photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“The Senate could play a moral role and I think in the beginning that it partly did so. The problem is that – in time – many of the senators who were elected were basically nominated by political parties and many of them were not very well known as public authorities, so to speak, people with some kind of moral credit.

“So it is the way in which senators are elected, how campaigns are run and how they are dependent on political parties. That all decreases the influence of the Senate; for it to become more influential we would need to see changes in how they were elected or to take it a step further, appointed. We know that in some countries the upper chambers of Parliament are not even elected but are a place for important public figures.

“The Senate elections would become much more important and we would see a higher turnout if it was made more powerful. For that we would need a constitutional change but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. It simply is not in the interest of the lower chamber to change the balance of power.”