Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Havel Era Ends in Czech Republic ; Political Gridlock Has Prevented Election of a Successor to the Man Who Led the 'Velvet Revolution.'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Havel Era Ends in Czech Republic ; Political Gridlock Has Prevented Election of a Successor to the Man Who Led the 'Velvet Revolution.'

Article excerpt

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.

Electoral circus

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 nominees offered.

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 Republic internationally."

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 parties.

"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. …

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