It is the end of an era. Czech President Vaclav Havel, the last
of the anticommunist heroes still in power in Central or Eastern
Europe, leaves office Sunday.
A renowned playwright and political prisoner before the 1989
"Velvet Revolution," Havel was catapulted into the president's chair
by his charisma and the proverbial circumstance of being in the
right place at the right time. After 13 years at the helm, first of
Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, he remains the only
figure most Czechs can envision in the castle overlooking Prague.
"He is a star that rose above everyday politics," says Olga
Sommerova, a Czech film director. "A person like that is born only
once in a hundred years."
After Havel steps down, the Czech Republic will be left without a
president, just as the country contemplates going to war for the
first time in its short history. The Czechs are reinforcing their
chemical unit in Kuwait in anticipation of a US call for aid in a
war with Iraq. Although the president wields little real power under
the Czech constitutional system, he is considered a symbol of the
nation and crucial to morale in troubled times.
In recent months, members of Parliament have gone through
contortions worthy of one of Havel's absurdist plays, trying to find
a candidate who can win the majority of votes necessary to take the
presidency and also be acceptable to the country's major political
parties. Parliament, which constitutionally must elect the
president, has failed six times in two rounds of voting to choose a
replacement for Havel, who must step down after two terms. Some
deputies have spoiled their ballots rather than vote for the
Last week, two Czech political heavyweights - the controversial
right-wing economist, Vaclav Klaus, and the former Communist Milos
Zeman - went head to head. For a moment, it appeared that Mr. Klaus
might win, but Jaroslava Moserova, who previously served as
ambassador to Australia, crashed the match, gaining just enough
votes to cost Klaus a victory.
Now, parliament must decide whether to attempt another vote or
change the constitution to allow for a direct election.
"There is a 50 percent chance there will be a direct election,"
says Jiri Pehe, a prominent political analyst and former Havel
adviser. "It would be a total fiasco if parliament votes again and
no one is elected again. That would really start to damage the Czech
The presidential campaign, plagued with mudslinging, has left the
public bemused and disheartened. Pehe and other analysts say there
is a desperate need for fresh candidates but little chance for new
faces to emerge because of the gridlock among the top political
"Political parties want a president they can control," says
Michal Hybek, a journalist who was part of Havel's inner circle
before the Velvet Revolution. "I suppose it is inevitable that we
join the rest of the world in petty politics, but I'm afraid that
soon we will look back on Havel's time and ache for those days to
return. We should be glad we had him as long as we did."
In the West, Havel has been elevated to the status of a fairy-
tale hero, the pen that proved mightier than the communist sword. …