International Papers

Havel’s Messy Exit

Headlines and hand-wringing concerning the Czech presidency dominated newspapers in Prague this week, as parliament failed to choose a man to fill the ample shoes of Václav Havel, the only president the decade-old Czech Republic has ever known.

The week began with the weekly Respektheralding, “The fight for the Castle begins.” The front-page cartoon at once captured and mocked a situation that is quickly becoming a bureaucratic imbroglio: A darkened Prague Castle—which is both the seat of the Czech presidency and “The Castle” of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel—sits enveloped in snow and swarming rooks. In front, the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed strums a guitar and sheds a tear. (Havel, a former dissident playwright jailed for his opposition to the Soviet-backed Communist regime, counts Reed as one of his biggest admirers—and vice versa.)

By Wednesday’s vote in parliament, things were getting messy. Former right-wing Prime Minister Václav Klaus, one of the few politicians to have publicly sparred with Havel, performed suprisingly well, but as expected, none of the candidates won enough votes to claim outright victory.

Voting now proceeds to a second round and, notably, the path opens for more contenders to enter the ring. At least one heavyweight is expected to do so: Social Democrat Milos Zeman, another former prime minister. As the daily Mlada Fronta Dnes put it, “Klaus won, but it wasn’t enough, opening the way even for Zeman.”

So Klaus’ strong showing is in fact a victory for his ideological rival Zeman. “Milos Zeman has burst into the fight for the Castle,” Lidove Novivydeclared on Friday. The paper led with a story indicating that Zeman has even been seeking support from the Communist Party. Political pariahs since Havel led a peaceful uprising that felled the old regime in 1989, the Communists may now be the swing vote in choosing his successor.

The big losers in Wednesday’s vote were centrist candidate Petr Pithart and the current prime minister, Vladimir Spidla. Pithart is considered one of the few candidates acceptable to a broad swath of the political spectrum, but the split within the ruling Social Democrats has hurt his chances.

For some, Zeman’s eventual victory is looking like a foregone conclusion. The tabloid Blesk quoted an unnamed Social Democrat functionary saying, “Spidla doesn’t even sense that it’s over.”

Despite Havel’s global reputation, which rivals that of Nelson Mandela in its moral stature, he exercised little real power as Czech president. Havel stood above the political fray, acting as an international ambassador to the world at large while the prime minister took care of the untidy business of ruling the country. Most politicians say they would like to keep it that way, but with the president elected by parliament, rather than by a popular vote, there is spreading concern that the Castle will become a “dumping ground” for politicians who have fallen out of favor with the public.

Indeed, as commentators sparred in the pages of the major dailies over the relative merits of each candidate, it became apparent that the argument is not just over the future president, but also over the post-Havel status of the office itself.

Writing in Mlada Fronta Dnes, Karel Steigerwald called Pithart a weak compromise candidate who lacks both the support and energy necessary to lead the young nation. “If the country does not expect a sequence of impasse situations, a candidate who is more energetic is useful, with the strength to support further modernization and further transformation. Petr Pithart has never demonstrated such energy.”

Also in Mlada Fronta Dnes, Jan Macháček argued against Klaus, who has struck many as arrogant but now preaches the virtues of a passive presidency. “Vaclav Klaus would have to change a lot to be a good president. Klaus is now speaking endlessly about humility, but surely a person cannot get out of his nature that easily.”

The current mess is a far cry from the urgency and simplicity of the revolutionary slogan heard on the streets in 1989: “Havel na Hrad!” or “Havel to the Castle.” Still, it is a testament to Havel himself that the partisans can now bicker freely and openly.

Lawmakers will try again on Jan. 24, but with Havel’s departure date of Feb. 2 fast approaching, there is a strong chance that he will leave with no one to take his place.