Sunday, 22 October 2017

Commentariat: Ready for a direct vote?

3 January 2008

Some 80% of Czechs would like to elect their president directly in a public vote. Over the years, various politicians have proposed switching to a direct system. The popular – some would say populist – proposal usually came from MPs running for reelection. Once parliamentary elections were over, plans for a direct presidential vote were safely filed in the dustbin.

The Czech population, therefore, could be forgiven for being somewhat sceptical about the latest proposal, under which Justice Minister Jiří Pospíšil has been tasked with drafting a bill over the summer that would institute a direct vote. Most commentators say change is unlikely.

In Právo Thursday Petr Uhl noted that making changes to a constitutional law calls for the support of three-fifths of the Senate and that will never happen.

Parties still disagree over whether presidential powers should be extended or curbed – the ODS would like to see them extended, while the opposition Social Democrats ČSSD want the president to have fewer powers. And a number of ODS deputies have begun speculating that changing the election system could mean that current President Václav Klaus could run for a third term – something the left-of-centre parties vehemently oppose.

Aside from earning brownie points from voters, politicians have little incentive to switch to a direct presidential vote. Under the current system, both chambers of Parliament choose the president in two rounds of voting. The process is often criticized for the amount of back-room deals it spawns both within and among political parties.

Giving that up would weaken the power of MPs, noted Lidové noviny's Martin Zvěřina. Parties would have less control over who gets the presidential seat and could end up facing a strong political opponent. A publicly-elected president could exert stronger pressure on the government and exercise his veto power with greater confidence, Zvěřina said. He argued this is the main reason why it is unlikely that the Czech Republic will have a direct vote anytime soon.

Writing in Mladá fronta Dnes Thursday, Karel Steigerwald said morevoer it is unlikely that MPs would be able to agree on how to change the current voting system. He also said it is naive to think that a direct presidential vote is more democratic. "Different states elect their leaders in different ways, and that has no impact on the quality of democracy or freedom – even if the head of state is king," he wrote.

Only Jiří Leschtina writing in Hospodářské noviny Wednesday suggested there is a small chance that MPs are ready to change the presidential vote. Unlike in the past, he argued, parties are able to agree on some of the basic rules that would govern a direct vote. The ODS, for instance, are willing to agree with the opposition and maintain two rounds of voting – something political analysts say functions as a safety mechanism that prevents an extremist candidate from getting elected. Equally importantly, Leschtina wrote, it is becoming harder and harder for politicians to keep ignoring the fact that the vast majority of Czechs strongly favour a direct vote.

Kristina Alda is the Monitor's managing editor. She likes writing about buildings and public space.
You can reach her at kristina@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.