Czech voters began going to the polls on Friday in the first round of the presidential election. Standing in the election are nine candidates including the incumbent, Miloš Zeman, who is seeking a second five-year term. It is only the second time in history that Czechs are voting directly on who will be the head of state.
The Czech Republic’s first two presidents, Václav Havel and Václav Klaus, were both elected by lawmakers in joint sessions of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, a system that has since been replaced by a direct presidential vote. Five years ago, the first direct vote was won by former prime minister Miloš Zeman. Like last time, the two candidates from the group who receive the most votes will go on to the second round.
On Saturday,January 13, the polls close at 2 pm after which the counting of the ballots begins. The result should be known by the later afternoon or evening.
If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, they will win the presidency outright and no second round would needed. But a win in the first round, while a possibility, is considered unlikely.
If needed, the second round weill see a run-off between the two highest scoring candidates and would then be in a fortnight, giving the two who go through time to rally as well as seek pledges of support from candidates who didn’t make the cut.
What kind of a role is played by the president? It is important to note that the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy where the prime minister, not the president, is the key player on the political scene.
The role of the president, while in many ways ceremonial, is still an important one, in appointing the PM, new governments, judges, generals and professors and the central bank governor.
The president also puts his signature to legislation or can veto laws (although that usually serves only as a temporary block which can be overridden by lawmakers in the Chamber of Deputies).
The president should streamline foreign policy with that of the government, and of course represents the country’s interests on official visits or summits and other meetings.
Here is how the presidency is viewed by political analyst Jiří Pehe:
“The Czech presidency is constructed in a slightly monarchial way even 100 years after the founding of the country and following the Habsburg empire, it was constructed in 1918 on the legacy of the monarchy. So although it is a positon with fewer powers, people still want to see someone in that position who can represent the country well and with dignity.”
In the run up to the first round of voting on Friday and Saturday, eight candidates, minus President Zeman, took part in final debates on Czech TV (Thursday) and at Czech Radio (Friday at 12:30) before polls opened. Mr Zeman has refused to take part in any debates with other candidates.
Czechs abroad began voting earlier. In the United States, Czechs could vote from Thursday 8 pm Central European time. Voting is possible in person in New York, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles. Interest in the vote was said to be higher than in October’s elections to the lower house of Parliament. The Czech consul in Washington said around 1,000 Czechs were registered to vote with participation at around 70 percent. Many can also cast correspondence votes.