Constitutional Court head slams direct presidential election amendment

Top judge says initiative badly thought out, doubts change in elections law will take effect in time for people to elect Václav Klaus’ successor

Constitutional Court Chief Justice Pavel Rychetský is now the most-trusted leader of a Czech state organ, according to SANEP foto: ČTKČeská pozice

Constitutional Court Chief Justice Pavel Rychetský is now the most-trusted leader of a Czech state organ, according to SANEP

Constitutional Court chairman Pavel Rychetský says the amendment passed last Wednesday to introduce direct presidential elections should have been accompanied with a law amending the Czech Constitution and clarifying electoral procedures. As it is, he says, it’s unclear who can dispute the 50,000 signatures required for a candidate to register — meaning any registered voter could mount a legal challenge.

Speaking on the political talk show “Questions of Václav Moravec” on Sunday, Rychetský said the legislation allowing for the Czech electorate to vote directly for the next president (after Václav Klaus steps down in March 2013) was poorly prepared and will lead to a loss of influence of the Senate, the upper house of the Czech parliament.

“There’s no way I would have voted for it in that form,” Rychetský said of the amendment, which has cleared both houses of parliament and now awaits President Klaus’ signature. “An amendment to the Constitution has been passed that enables the nomination of a candidate for the presidency by submitting 50,000 signatures in support, but there is no [Constitutional] law that specifies who has the right to challenge an application.”

Rychetský — who has himself been tipped as a potential presidential candidate — said that without Constitutional legislation to address this and other shortcomings, every registered Czech voter would be able to dispute a candidate’s registration, which potentially “means six or seven million complaints,” he said.

Fear of endless legal wrangling

Under the amendment passed last Wednesday, the lower chamber of the Czech parliament will gain powers to impeach the presidentSenator Jaroslav Kubera (Civic Democrats, ODS) has echoed Rychetský’s concerns, saying that with just the Constitutional amendment introducing direct elections, defeated candidates could appeal against the victor’s candidacy even after the vote. “The idea that we [the Senate] would check [candidates’ applications] after the election fills me with horror, because it will lead to legal disputes: the unsuccessful candidates will mount legal challenges,” Kubera told reporters over the weekend.

The Ministry of Interior has prepared a draft law on direct presidential elections, but Interior Minister Jan Kubice (nonaffiliated) has requested that some norms be debated by the government. The government hopes the new Constitutional law will be passed by October 1 this year, but Rychetský says that would not leave nearly enough time for proper implementation of rights to appeal and for judicial reviews of the law.  

Under the amendment, the lower house of parliament (the Chamber of Deputies) will gain powers to impeach the president, which will require the support of two-thirds of all MPs; now only the Senate has this power. “This presents a really considerable weakening of the upper chamber,” Rychetský said, but added that he thinks it very unlikely that direct presidential elections will lead to the abolishment of the upper house, as some have suggested, pointing out that the senators themselves would have to agree.  

Rychetský, a signatory of the Charter 77 declaration against the communist regime, ranks among the most trusted figures in the state sphere, and polls have suggested he would be a popular presidential candidate. On Sunday, however, he ruled out such a move. “I have neither the time nor money to conduct a campaign,” he said.

According to two recent polls, the current favorite to replace Klaus is Jan Fischer, a statistician and former caretaker prime minister, for whom a third of Czechs surveyed by the Median agency said they would cast their ballots, followed by Czech-American economist Jan Švejnar, with about 15% support, and Czech-Japanese businessman Tomio Okamura, who was named first choice for president by 12% of respondents. None of them are affiliated with a political party.