17/12/2012 - Analysis - 1st round
Nearly 10 million Czechs are being called to ballot on 11th and 12th January next to elect the President of the Republic for the first time by direct universal suffrage. Vaclav Klaus (Democratic-Civic Party ODS), who has held office for the last ten years (7th March 2003) and undertaken two successive mandates, is not allowed to stand again. If no candidate wins the absolute majority on 12th January next, a second round of voting will take place two weeks later i.e. on 25th and 26th January.
The polls show that the Czechs' interest in this first presidential election by direct universal suffrage is clear. According to a poll by the Centre for Public Opinion (CVVM), 80% of the Czechs support the election of the President of the Republic in this manner. Six voters in ten are due to turn out to vote on 11th and 12th January.
The Change in the Voting Method
Since 1993 the Czech President was elected in a secret vote by the two chambers of Parliament (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) which used to gather in the Spanish Hall of the Prague Castle, the official seat of the Presidency.
The last presidential election on 8th and 15th February 2008 was tumultuous and difficult, marred by accusations of corruption with a great deal of pressure being placed on MPs. Two votes were required to re-elect Vaclav Klaus as head of State.
During the first three rounds in the first election the atmosphere was particularly tense with the majority and the opposition arguing in front of the television cameras on which the election was broadcast live and watched by 800,000 viewers. The vote was delayed several hours because there was discussion about the voting method. The Greens (SZ) and the Social Democrats (CSSD) had suggested the vote take place by a show of hands, which was opposed by the ODS; finally this was accepted by the two chambers of Parliament. The Presidential election therefore took place for the first time by a show of hands (the Czech Constitution does not specify which voting method should be used for the appointment of the President of the Republic, indicating only that he must be elected by the members of Parliament). Vaclav Klaus then declared that he thought the call for a vote by a show of hands had been a strategy used to prevent his re-election.
The voting method did not however prevent the outgoing Head of State from being re-elected on 15th January 2008 in the third round of the second election, winning by 30 votes over Jan Svejnar, who was supported by the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Association of Independents-European Democrats (SNK-ED) and the Open Democracy Club (KOD). "There are things which happened that were not worthy of the democracy which the Czech Republic embodies,
" deemed Lukas Macek, director of the European Campus (Central and Eastern Europe) of Sciences Po in Dijon. The Blesk newspaper spoke of "the Czech Palermo
" referring to the pressure and threats which were exercised on MPs.
Source : Czech Press Agency CTK
Prime Minister Petr Necas, (ODS) who came to office after the victory of the rightwing in the general elections on 28th and 29th May 2010, included the change in the presidential voting method in his programme. Both parties in his government – Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity 09 (TOP 09) and the Public Affairs Party (VV) – hold this promise dear. The head of State, Vaclav Klaus has always been against this change which he has qualified as a "fatal error
". He declared that "the idea that the electorate will choose the President of the Republic is a mistake. He will be appointed by the media and those voting will simply approve this choice.
" The outgoing President believes that the Czech Republic is not ready for a development of this kind.
The law governing the election of the Czech President by direct universal suffrage entered into force on 1st October 2012. In order to stand every candidate has to have the support of at least 20 MPs or 10 Senators or 50,000 signatures from the electorate.
The law stipulates that the Head of State is not allowed to grant presidential pardon and that he will only enjoy immunity for the time of his mandate. Moreover the text extends the list of reasons why the President of the Republic can be removed from office. The Senate can, with the agreement of the Chamber of Deputies, lodge a complaint against him with the Constitutional Court, not only for treason but also if the Upper Chamber deems that the Head of State has infringed the Constitution or the constitutional order. A complaint like this requires, however, the vote of 3/5th's of the Senators and 2/3rd's of the MPs.
Finally the electoral law limits the campaign expenditure of the candidates running for the supreme office to 40 million crowns (i.e. 1.5 million €) (50 million crowns for the two days of voting i.e. 2 million €).
For a long time the ODS maintained that the change in the voting method for the presidential election was incompatible with parliamentary democracy. Some political analysts also believe that the presidential election by direct universal suffrage is foreign to the country's constitutional structure. "Direct universal suffrage would only make sense if the Head of the Czech State enjoyed a great deal of power, which is not the case. Moreover it may worsen voter fatigue given the number of elections (regional, local, legislative and senatorial) which unceasingly follow on from each other. In the beginning we might expect high turnout but this will tend to decline,
" stresses lawyer Petr Kolman. "People think that the fact of electing the President of the Republic themselves will guarantee a kind of control over the political parties but things will not happen like this,
" says sociologist Jirina Siklova.
"The problem with Czech politics is not the weakness of the President of the Republic but the weakness of the governments and the direct election of the Head of State may weaken these even further. The direct election of the President will not improve the Czech political system but will make its problems worse,
" declared Tomas Lebeda, a political expert at the Faculty of Social Science at the University Charles of Prague. "The political parties will occupy a privileged position in the organisation and the funding of the electoral campaigns whilst in the parliamentary vote system agreement can be found on an impartial president of the Republic as was the case with Vaclav Havel,
" stresses Jan Kysela, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University Charles of Prague.
9 people are running officially in the presidential election:
– Jan Fischer, (independent), 61 years old, former Prime Minister (2009-2010). He collated 101,761 voters' signatures;
– Jiri Dienstbier (CSSD), 43 years old, Vice President of the Social Democratic Party supported by a group of 28 senators. Son of Jiri Dienstbier, signatory of the Charter 77 (text signed by dissidents opposed to the socialist normalisation process of Czechoslovak society in the 1970's) and former Foreign Affairs Minister, he defends greater European integration;
– Milos Zeman (The Citizens' Rights Party, SPOZ), 68 years old, former Prime Minister (1998-2002). He collated 105,400 voters' signatures;
– Premysl Sobotka (ODS), 68 years old, Vice President of the Senate supported by a group of 41 MPs and 23 Senators. He was appointed candidate in July after a primary election in his party in which he came out ahead of MEP Evzen Tosenovsky;
– Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09), 74 years old, present Foreign Minister; supported by a group of MPs. He is standing as the only real opponent to outgoing President Vaclav Klaus;
– Zuzana Roithova (Christian Democratic Union – People's Party, KDU-CSL), 59 years old, MEP and former Healthcare Minister (January-July 1998), collated 80,900 voters' signatures;
– Tatana Fischerova (independent but supported by the Green Party, CZ), 65 years old, actress. Former MP for the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU) between 2002 and 2006, she founded the Klicové hnuti association in 2008 (The Key Movement) which advocates total political, economic and cultural independence. In her opinion "the election of the Head of State by direct universal suffrage must lead civil society to the choice of a personality who is not associated to a party or to political or economic power structures
". She collated 72, 600 signatures;
– Vladimir Franz (independent), 53 years old, composer and artist. Supported by 88,400 voters he wants to "mobilise civil society so that people think more, read between the lines and allow no one to dupe them
– Jana Bobosikova (Sovereignty, SBB), 48 years old, former Director of the editorial staff of the public television channel and former MEP (2004-2009), a nationalist and against the European Union.
The Interior Minister rejected the candidature of two people (former Industry and Trade Minister (1992-1997) Vladimir Dlouhy and Senator and businessman Tomio Okamura) deeming that a major share of the signatures that they presented were not valid.
The Electoral Campaign
The Czech leftwing is somewhat divided in this presidential election. Jiri Dienstbier, the Social Democratic Party's official candidate is facing strong competition on the part of Milos Zeman within the left leaning electorate; the latter led the opposition party between 1993 and 2002 before quitting five years ago. Analysts wonder what the supporters of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) will do in the first round. Indeed the party is not putting any candidate forward and on 8th December last chose not to support either of the leftwing candidates. The leader of the communist group Jiri Dolejs has said that in his opinion Jiri Dienstbier leant "more to the left
" than Milos Zeman. The Social Democratic leader Bohuslav Sobotka wrote to his communist counterpart Vojtech Filip to remind him that Jiri Dienstbier was the only leftwing candidate. He also warned him of the danger of a lack of cooperation between the Social Democrats and the Communists, which might lead to a second round in which two centre-right candidates would face each other, i.e. a failure for the left.
Jiri Dienstbier has said that personally he disagreed with the KSCM but that the social dimension which the party held was vital in his opinion. As for Milos Zeman he is unconditionally trying to attract all of the electorate. The former Prime Minister is not against cooperating with Vojtech Filip's party. "Communists are dangerous only if they have the USSR and its tanks behind them,
" he stressed.
Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman have also been criticised because of their former membership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSC) which governed Czechoslovakia from 1948 until the Velvet Revolution at the end of 1989. The former was a member from 1980 to 1989 and the latter between 1968 and 1970 (the year in which he was excluded from it). Former Czechoslovak political prisoners, who were persecuted by the former communist regime, have said they will not go to the Castle of Prague to receive their medal for their resistance against totalitarianism, if Milos Zeman or Jan Fischer are elected as Head of State in January next.
Interviewed by the country's daily Mlada fronta Dnes
(Youth Front) on 9th November last about the reason why the Czechs should vote for him on 11th and 12th January next the ODS candidate Premysl Sobotka answered "because I have never been a communist.
" "Can we grant the office of President of the Republic to a former member of the Communist Party?
" he asks.
Just one month before the election Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman are leading in the polls. The independent candidate is due to win 25% of the vote in the first round, whilst the Citizens' Rights candidate is due to win 25.6%. Social Democrat Jiri Dienstbier is due to come third with 10.6% of the vote.
A test presidential election was organised amongst 61,500 secondary school pupils. Vladimir Franz came first with 40.7% of the vote. He was followed by Jan Fischer who won 19.4% of the vote, Karel Schwarzenberg, who won 14.6% and finally Milos Zeman, 9.4%.
Vaclav Klaus's mandate will officially come to an end on 7th March next.