In 'absurd situation,' Czech assembly votes on filling vanishing presidency

September 24, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- What if they had an election an nobody ran? The answer may be here.

In the rapidly disintegrating world of Czechoslovak politics, the last three months have seen the Federal Assembly vote four times on the presidency, once with no candidate at all, and three others in which all candidates were rejected.

Today the assembly will meet for a fifth time to try to elect a president, and while there is at least a candidate this time, it could hardly be called a serious bid for the office.

Indeed, no one other than the candidate himself expects the outcome this time to be any different than it has in the last three months.

"Theoretically it's possible for him to win," said a spokeswoman for the parliament. "But of course he doesn't stand a chance."

The candidate, a banker and businessman named Jiri Kotas who XTC returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990 from an 11-year exile in Canada, says he could win.

"It's not over until it's over, and anybody in the country is entitled to run for president," Mr. Kotas said in an interview. "There is a reasonable chance I'll be elected on the second ballot."

Parliamentary procedure calls for two rounds of voting for the presidency. In the first round, a three-fifths majority is needed for election. In the second round, a simple majority is sufficient. There is no direct popular vote for the presidency.

Former President Vaclav Havel resigned in July after failing to make the cut in either the first or second rounds, because of opposition by deputies from the independence-minded region of Slovakia. Since that time, the country has been without a formal head of state, although Premier Jan Strasky has taken over many of the day-to-day duties of the office, such as greeting ambassadors and visiting dignitaries.

After the assembly rejected Mr. Havel, two further votes saw several right-wing candidates similarly rebuffed; in the fourth vote, six weeks ago, no candidate was nominated.

While many Czechs and Slovaks lament Mr. Havel's departure, few seem concerned about the current lack of a president. With the country apparently headed for a breakup at the end of the year -- Czech and Slovak leaders agreed last month to split the country, although the parliament has yet to approve the agreement -- most wonder why the country should even bother trying to fill the post.

"It's an absurd situation, that's all," said Jaroslav Veis, a columnist for the daily Lidove Noviny. "The splitting of the federation is already done, so why continue with this ridiculous exercise?"

Mr. Kotas, however, believes that as long as the post of president exists, someone should fill it.

"The presidency is a constitutional function that has a very specific meaning and significance, especially in this period of transition," Mr. Kotas said.

But without the support of the country's two most powerful political parties -- the Civic Democratic Party in the Czech lands and the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia -- Mr. Kotas' hopes are indeed slim.

"Our only candidate was, is and will be Mr. Vaclav Havel," said Jiri Schneider, a spokesman for the Civic Democratic Party. "The consequence is that we won't vote for any other candidate as federal president."

"Our position is clear," said Roman Zelenay, the vice chairman of the Federal Assembly and a leader of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia. "We don't think there needs to be a federal president."

Interest in the election, meanwhile, is hardly at a fever pitch. On the eve of the vote, Mlada Fronta Dnes, the country's largest daily, ran a total of one paragraph on the election.

And a random poll of 10 people in central Prague found six had never even heard of the candidate, and the four who knew his name wondered why Mr. Kotas was even going through the trouble.

"I don't think anybody has a chance of being elected president, not even Vaclav Havel," said Stanislav Nezveda, summing up the views of most voters. "The federal functions just don't make any sense any more."

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