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Who will be the next President

Ivan Pilip, a deputy of the Union Freedom (US), has provoked a controversy when he said during a recent TV debate that Social Democratic Party (CSSD) Chairman Milos Zeman and Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Vaclav Klaus have been secretly negotiating an agreement under which Klaus would become the next Czech President in exchange for the ODS's support of the CSSD government's various legislative initiatives in the next nine months.

Both Klaus and Zeman have accused Pilip of lying, while some other politicians have argued that Pilip's assertions are plausible. Some leading ODS and CSSD politicians have accused Pilip and his party of trying to drive a wedge between the CSSD and the ODS ahead of a scheduled parliament vote on the state budget. The ODS voted against the government's budget proposal in the first reading but has indicated it may let it pass in the end in light of the Communist Party's unreasonable demands that military expenditures be cut.

While the ODS claims that the change of its attitude has to do with fears that the Communist Party's demand could undercut the Czech Republic's aspirations to become a NATO member, Pilip and others have argued that the ODS is already looking for ways to support the CSSD. This, in their opinion, supports their thesis that a deal between Klaus and Zeman is in the making.

Most of such accusations and counteraccusations are just regular part of Czech political culture. They obscure a more important question: who will be the country's next president? On the one hand, it may seemingly be too early to ask such a question. After all, President Vaclav Havel's term of office ends in 2003. On the other hand, it is increasingly clear that a discussion about who should replace Havel will not be any easier in 2003 than it is now.

Under the Czech Constitution, the president is elected by the parliament. It means a majority of deputies and a majority of Senators have to vote for a particular candidate. Given the high level of partisanship in Czech politics, finding such a candidate will be very difficult. Should the current composition of the parliament be approximately the same in 2003 as it is now, it seems that no candidate can be elected unless the two largest parties--the ODS and the CSSD--can agree on supporting the same candidate.

The parties will basically have only two choices: either they agree on someone politically neutral or they strike a political deal as part of which a leading politician of one of the two parties would be elected the president. The so-called opposition agreement between the CSSD and the ODS, under which the ODS made it possible for the CSSD to govern in exchange for getting the posts of chairmen of both chambers of the parliament, can serve as a precedent.

It is the opposition agreement that fuels suspicions of some political opponents of the CSSD's and the ODS's real intentions. They argue that if a compromise under which the two parties have divided spoils of power was possible once it may be possible again. Moreover, both Klaus's possible presidential aspirations and the CSSD's support for such aspiration is not lacking in logic. Being the president would be the culmination of Klaus's political career. The CSSD, on the other hand, would get rid of Klaus in the post of ODS Chairman, which could significantly weaken the ODS.

Although such arguments sound logical, they are not necessarily plausible. First, the presidential election is four years away, unless Havel resigns. The president has several times mentioned that he could possibly resign if faced with serious health problems again, but he has no real intention to resign for political reasons. Some politicians and commentators argue d that the ODS, in particular, has run a campaign, the purpose of which is to drive Havel out of office. The president has also been subjected to media attacks in recent months.

Those, who argue that the ultimate objective of the campaign against Havel is to drive him out of office (and that this supports their arguments about Klaus's secret presidential ambitions), do not take into account, however, that Havel is not the kind of person who easily gives up in face of political pressure. After all, he was the country's leading dissident under the communist regime, and attacks against him made him only stronger.

If Havel's stays as President until 2003, secret negotiations between Klaus and Zeman about who should become the next president would make little sense. First, Zeman himself has announced he will leave politics in four years. Second, neither of the two politicians can predict what will the composition of the parliament will be in 2003. Should the next parliamentary elections be held as planned they would still precede the presidential election by one year.

It is also not clear to what extent Zeman has the situation in his own party under control. Some leading members of his party would certainly be opposed to a deal under which Klaus would become the president. Some CSSD politicians are questioning the opposition agreement as is and would find it difficult to accept its extension. Zeman could thus hardly start negotiations with Klaus on his own, without risking a revolt in his own party.

The current controversy, nevertheless, poses difficult questions. Czech political parties should start seriously discussing who will replace Havel. Alternatively, they should strive for changing the mode of electing the president so that the president is elected directly by the people. If the way in which the president is elected stays the same, any political discussions about Havel's successor will continue divide politicians and political parties, just like the current discussion.

Reuters - 13. 1. 1999