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The future of the electoral process

Officials and pundits discuss the likelihood of a direct vote

By Markéta Hulpachová
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
February 13th, 2008 issue

Last September, Senate Chairman Přemysl Sobotka stood on the Senate floor and described a phenomenon that had, in past years, become a local political tradition:
“As the date of the next presidential election nears, it spurs among our political circles an outburst of passionate debate regarding the form of these elections.”
With these words, Sobotka initiated a high-level political discussion about an institution that could reshape the country’s governmental structure: a president chosen directly by the people.
Under the current system, the president is elected by the two houses of Parliament in a three-part process that often leads to drawn-own haggling among political factions — a drawback well-illustrated by the stalemate that marked the inconclusive the Feb. 8 presidential elections.
As ordinary citizens become increasingly disillusioned by the behind-the-scenes pacts shrouding the appointment of the next president, policymakers representing a spectrum of ideological persuasions are contemplating extensive constitutional reforms that would enable the people — not Parliament — to select the head of state.
With roots dating to the First Republic (1918–38), the selection of a president by elected representatives, or representative democracy, has a long-standing tradition here. According to Sobotka, it has “become a sort of a customary right in this country, just like the high value citizens place on the presidential institution, which has roots in the exemplary persona of first Czechoslovak President [Tomáš Garrigue] Masaryk.”
Modeled in part after the electoral system in Germany, the Czech parliamentary democracy is relatively unique among post-communist countries. Aside from Hungary, which operates under a similar system, the citizens of countries such as Slovakia, Poland and Latvia have elected their presidents directly since the early 1990s, Green Party Chairman Martin Bursík, a proponent of the direct vote, pointed out at the September conference.
Despite this prevalence, Charles University political scientist Zdeněk Zbořil warns against reshaping the local system based on the experiences of former Soviet bloc states. “Unfortunately, the direct vote has not worked well in practice for some of these countries — just look at Slovakia,” he said, alluding to the epic 1990s power struggle between the country’s nationalist prime minister Vladimír Mečiar and the executive powers.
As for older European Union member states, presidents are directly elected in Ireland, Austria, France, Portugal, Iceland and Finland.
As summed up by Christian Democratic Party Chairman Jiří Čunek, another supporter of the direct vote, presidents are elected directly in one-half of European nations, while one-fourth elect them indirectly, and the remaining one-fourth of countries are constitutional monarchies.
Allotting electoral privileges exclusively to members of Parliament is also rare, Čunek pointed out. “As a rule, this kind of indirect vote is conducted by a wider organ, not just Parliament,” he added, referring to the electoral systems in Italy, where the president is elected by both chambers of Parliament as well as regional governors, and Germany, where a federal convention made up of the lower house and an equal number of state delegates elects the president.
Looking ahead
Perhaps the biggest proponent of the direct vote among today’s top politicians is Jiří Paroubek, the chairman of the opposition Social Democrats (ČSSD) — the party that nominated presidential candidate Jan Švejnar and supported him in his efforts to garner public support in a Western-style grassroots campaign.
While some political analysts consider this sort of populist campaigning nonsensical given the current electoral system, Paroubek says Švejnar’s actions were logical. “I think his conduct was well thought out and also fair and honest toward our citizens,” he told The Prague Post Jan. 25. “The president is not the president of the two houses of Parliament — the president is the president of us all.”
Even the conservative Civic Democrats (ODS), the governing majority party, do not object to a discussion about a possible direct presidential election — in fact, initiating a political discussion regarding this topic is one of the goals listed in the coalition government’s official agenda.
Unlike the coalition’s minority party leaders Bursík and Čunek, however, Prime Minister and ODS Chairman Mirek Topolánek has his doubts about the necessity to change the status quo. “I definitely consider it a benefit that our presidential elections are not preceded by some campaign that is unavoidable in a direct election and causes rifts among citizens,” he said. “We recently saw this in Poland, where the presidential elections immediately followed the parliamentary ones. When someone talks about how our method of selecting the head of state is undignified, he should first weigh the consequences of a direct vote.”
Implementation strategy
If support for a direct presidential vote continues to grow among policymakers, it is possible that the necessary changes could be made by the next presidential elections in 2013, Zbořil said. But, because such reforms would require dramatic changes, including an altered constitution and a re-balancing of executive, legislative and judicial powers, the provision should be based on a careful, well-planned proposal from legal and political authorities. “If this is going to happen, a roundtable of politicians, historians, lawyers and political analysts should sit down, and it should only come into effect in the [2018] presidential elections,” he said. “By then, today’s politicians will no longer be in office, which will enable them to make unbiased decisions.”
When implementing the direct vote, he added, policymakers should construct an electoral system that ensures a voter turnout of at least 30 percent and eliminates the chance of a “middleman institution” such as electoral delegates coming between voters and presidential candidates.
Putting the new system into practice should not pose serious logistical hurdles, Zbořil said, because citizens already use this type of infrastructure when electing members of Parliament.

Markéta Hulpachová can be reached at mhulpachova@praguepost.com


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