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The Pluses of a Non-partisan President

The current post-election stalemate in the Czech Republic could be solved more quickly and efficiently had President Václav Klaus preserved the tradition of nonpartisan presidents.

Klaus was elected to his post, although he was a founder of the center-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and its honorary chairman at the time of the presidential election.

In speeches to Parliament ahead of the February 2003 presidential election, Klaus promised to be “above political parties,” as had his predecessor, Václav Havel. Since Klaus was so closely tied with a specific political party, doing so would have meant making an extra effort to persuade the public and other political parties that he wasn’t siding with the ODS. Indeed, Klaus initially tried to do so, but was increasingly unable or unwilling to hide his ideological preferences and his close relationship with ODS leaders.

In the current context, politicians and commentators often refer to the 1996 post-election situation, when the political deadlock was solved in a rather creative way: the Social Democrats (ČSSD) let Klaus, then prime minister, form a minority coalition government in exchange for giving the ČSSD the post of chairman of the lower house of Parliament. ČSSD deputies walked out during the vote of confidence, making it possible for Klaus’ government to survive.

But when that story is retold today, an important bit of information is usually missing: the deal was made possible due to the authority and negotiating skills of then-President Havel, who not only came up with the idea but persuaded politicians from both camps to accept the deal.

Clearly, Havel wouldn’t have been able to achieve this had he been as closely associated with one political party as is Klaus today. Although in 1996 personal relations between Havel and Klaus were already deteriorating, Havel was seen as neither an enemy of the ODS nor an enemy of the ČSSD. However, this was so not because of publicly expressed support for ČSSD by Havel, but because ČSSD party Chairman Miloš Zeman and other ČSSD leaders saw it as advantageous at that time to be perceived as Havel’s friends.

Although Havel was often accused of meddling in party politics, he was never closely associated with any political party. His personal friendships, dating back to his dissident years, with politicians who later formed the Freedom Union (US), prompted some politicians and pundits to accuse Havel of siding with that particular party. Still, in 1996 he was still widely seen as a strictly nonpartisan president.

It was exactly this image, combined with his personal authority, that made Havel a respected moderator of post-election talks. And this is what Klaus, who is highly distrusted by the CSSD in particular, is lacking; any possible deal he may propose will be viewed with suspicion.

As a result, post-election talks are left in a limbo of sorts. Party leaders keep meeting, but there seems to be no sense of direction. Klaus has been criticized for attempts to expand his constitutional powers, and his critics might have been right. However, no one would accuse him of being power hungry if Klaus was more active in post-election talks — this is, after all, what’s expected of a good president.

Unfortunately, Klaus has made this role very difficult for himself, and in a situation in which the president should be center stage, he’s been more or less a bystander.