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Commentariat: A passive audience

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With the US presidential race well under way and the Czech presidential vote fast approaching, many commentators couldn’t help but compare the two very different election systems this week. Others were happy to just weight in on the US campaign, which seems to be drawing more excitement among Czechs than the election of their own head of state.

It’s not so surprising. Czech Repubic’s representative democratic system means citizens can’t do more than sit back and watch as senators and deputies – the only ones who will be voting for the president next month – make inter-party and intra-party deals.

And while the outcome of the US election will have world-wide impact, the results of the Czech race will likely make little difference to anybody. The Czech head of state has limited presidential powers, and even with his veto power, his function is largely representative. At the most, a new president might mean a different colour scheme for Prague Castle interiors, maybe, or subtle changes in the Prague Castle cultural program, possibly also fewer rants on the dangers of radical environmentalism.

Some commentators called on politicians to introduce a direct popular vote; others mocked presidential hopeful Jan Švejnar – so far the only candidate running aginst President Václav Klaus – for attempting a US-style campaign. Earlier this week, Švejnar set out to visit towns across the Czech Repubic to meet with Czech citizens.

“Mr. Švejnar’s campaign is ridiculous,” wrote Rudolf Polanecký his blog on the online news server iDnes Tuesday. “He says he wants to convince voters. This is a US term. Our constituion says nothing about voters It says that the president is elected by deputies and senators. It seems that Mr. Švejnar knows nothing about the local election system.”

Political analyst Bohumil Doležal echoed Polanecký’s words in Lidové noviny Wednesday, saying Švejnar’s campaign is “pointless”. “Deputies and senators will be the ones voting, so the election should be aimed at them,” Doležal worte.

Právo’s Martin Hekrdla also criticised Švejnar’s campaign – not because he thought it was useless but because it demonstrated his efforts to appeal all political parties, whose deputies might consider voting for him. (But isn’t that the point of a campaign?). In meeting with Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Švejnar was trying to earn brownie points with the junior ruling Christian Democrats, Hekrdla wrote, while he tried to appeal to the Greens when he scheduled a meeting with the party on alternative energy sources.

In Lidové noviny Tuesday Martin Weiss described the US presidential election as a play with many acts and the potential to surprise at the last minute and where everyone can take part. The Czech election, by contrast, is all about behind-the-scenes deals in smoky corridors, Weiss wrote. “When electing the head of state, we are the passive audience of a not particuarly inspiring performance,” he said. “As political theatre, the US primaries are much more fun, but, as everyone knows, the US entertainment industry dominates around the world.”

Similarly, in his online commentary in Respekt Saturday, Erik Tabery portrayed the Czech presidential race as a series of opaque business deals.

“All these backroom negotiations (and there could be more than we’re aware of) are the price we pay for parliamentary presidential elections,” Tabery wrote. “Parties should keep their promise and finally introduce direct presidential elections. At the very least, it would be more transparent.”

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