Senate elections fail to arouse enthusiasm


Rarely can a Czech election have aroused so little public interest. It's easy to forget that this Friday and Saturday, a third of the Czech electorate will have the chance to go to the polls. They'll be voting in elections to the Senate, the upper house of the Czech parliament, a political institution that since it came into being six years ago has never really captured the public imagination. Few Czechs are convinced by the idea of the Senate as a chamber of wise political elders and there have often been calls for it to be abolished altogether. David Vaughan reports.

This weekend candidates will be fighting in twenty-seven of the eighty-one constituencies, under a rotating system where a third of the chamber is up for election every two years. Opinion polls suggest that the turn-out will be extremely low, so I went out into the streets of Prague to test the mood.

Most people I spoke to said "ano" - yes, they would be voting, but no-one spoke with real enthusiasm.

One man summed up the discontent of many voters: the Senate is intended as a safety net, he said, to prevent bad laws being passed, but its views are nearly always ignored by the lower house anyway, and laws end up being passed come what may. The Senate does not have a power of veto.

One of the outgoing Senators is the independent, Eduard Outrata, who rejects the cynicism of many and is an enthusiastic defender of the Senate as an institution.

"The Senate is very important because it is supposed to be a counter-balance to a lower chamber which is very political because of its proportional representation structure. You become an MP by getting high on a party list, and so, the campaign is fully party oriented, while senators are elected in single-member constituencies and so there is a good chance to elect someone who is known at least in the region, perhaps nationally, as a strong individual who can push his own ideas. The constitutional balance is built very much this way, the Senate has limited powers in day-to-day issues, but its strong powers are where there would be an attempt by bigger parties to do something to do something to damage the constitution, and there have been a few attempts in the past."

The party that has most often criticised the Senate is the right-wing Civic Democrats, or ODS, of Vaclav Klaus. Members of the party have often claimed that the chamber is a gravy train for political has-beens, but in these elections, they are toning down the rhetoric. The reason is simple. Ladislav Jakl, a political advisor to Mr Klaus.

"Now is the great chance for ODS because ODS for the first time has a chance to increase the number of senators, because old senators ending in these elections are only five, and it's a possibility to increase their number very strong, for the first time."

Mr Jakl argues that if the Senate shifts to the right as a result of this weekend's elections, it will help create a counter-balance to the current government.

"It's important I think especially in this time when our government will try to make deep changes in our society. Our government will try to turn our society to the left and the Senate can fight against it."

So for the time being - for reasons of political expediency rather than through the conviction of politicians - the Senate looks set to remain.

In the longer run, things are less secure. There is growing political support for changing the way the president is elected, so that he or she can be chosen directly by the electorate, instead of parliament. If this becomes a reality, it will inevitably reinforce the president's influence and leave the Senate with a tougher job to justify its existence.