- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

PRAGUE The Czech parliament will attempt this week to choose a successor to Vaclav Havel from four candidates seeking to follow the only president the young nation has ever known.
The constitution calls for the parliament to elect the president. But political divisions have prompted fears that no candidate can win the required majority backing in parliament, leaving the country without a president.
"It's in the hands of the parties in a nontransparent process," said political analyst Ivan Gabal
Mr. Havel, 66, finishes his second five-year term in office Feb. 2 and is constitutionally barred form seeking a third term. The poor health of Mr. Havel, a former chain-smoking dissident playwright, also is likely to have precluded him from seeking a third term anyway.
The presidential election involves all 281 members of the upper and lower houses of parliament, which is slated to begin voting tomorrow.
Former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus is seen by some as a front-runner, but Mr. Klaus, an abrasive economist, built up so many enemies, including Mr. Havel, while in office in the 1990s that an "anyone but Klaus" movement is gaining momentum among deputies.
Senate leader Petr Pithart, a Christian Democrat, is Mr. Klaus' main rival and could become the leading choice if none of the four candidates in the first round of voting secures a simple majority in both the lower house and the Senate.
There would then be a runoff vote between the two top candidates.
Mr. Pithart has a similar dissident background to Mr. Havel's something Klaus lacks but his membership in the Communist Party, which he renounced in the 1970s, is a blemish some are not willing to overlook. The largely leftist lower house may also shy away from his current conservative tendencies.
Two other candidates, Jaroslav Bures of the Social Democrats and Communist Miroslav Krizenecky, are not likely to mount a serious challenge for the position, which holds little power over the day-to-day running of the country.
"It would be an exceptional situation if the country were without a head of state, but I don't think it would really affect the workings of the political system," one EU diplomat said.
"The president over the years has lent much moral support to guiding the country, but in practice he has not done much else, it's not really in his duties."
Mr. Havel supported the Czech drive to join the European Union but played no role in implementing reforms associated with it.
Mr. Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1990 but resigned the position in 1992, saying he did not want to preside over the split of the country at the end of that year.
After the Czech Republic and Slovakia broke apart peacefully Jan. 1, 1993, there was no president for several months, until parliament in the new independent Czech state held an election, which Mr. Havel easily won.
He was elected to a second five-year term in 1998.

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