February 2003   česky

It was supposed to be just another televised awards show, with lots of gags, presentations, winner of this, winner of that. But the real action took place in the bathroom, where Jiří Balvín, the recently ousted director of Czech Television, got into a brawl with one of his former editors. It wasn't clear who started it or whether either man was able to take care of any other business while in the bathroom. The fight eventually spilled over into a meeting of the Czech Broadcasting Council, which failed to agree on a new director for the trouble-plagued station. Two of the Council's more high profile members quit in disgust, but there was no immediate cause for alarm. Rehearsals were already underway for next month's awards show. Meanwhile across town, Parliament was gearing up for another attempt at electing a president. Cynicism was running high after the first two attempts ended in stalemate, but that didn't stop the Communists from offering a has-been cosmonaut as their candidate. Even director Miloą Forman tried his hand by suggesting that the utterly stiff Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Prince von Schwarzenberg and one of Havel's closest friends, would make a good president. The ruling coalition, however, was determined to do it right this time around and unite around a single candidate. Their safest bet was to scour the nation's universities for a person who embodied the best in the philosopher-king tradition set by Havel. They came up with Jan Sokol, a former dissident (naturally) who had given up politics to teach philosophy. But Sokol had an image problem. He liked to wear goofy hats and bore an eerie resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein. What's more, 13 years of one philosopher-king was quite enough, thank you. That was beside the point as far as the government was concerned. The coalition parties were boxed in by the power struggle going on at the top of the Social Democrats. Premier ©pidla had sabotaged a bid by his former mentor, Miloą Zeman, to become president during the second round of voting and now the humiliated Zeman was urging his followers to pay back ©pidla in kind. The premier's answer was to be pragmatic about the situation that faces his government: Look, people, let's install this tobacco-stained intellectual in the Castle. He can muse about morals and democracy and conjure up images of Havel for the rest of the world. We will do the real business of running the country. If not, then Václav Klaus will win the presidency and there goes our government, perhaps even before the next election. Pragmatic indeed, but his plea fell on deaf ears. When it came time to vote, the Zemanites preferred to settle the score and deserted Sokol. Since neither Sokol nor Klaus had a majority behind him, the trump card lay with the same party that Havel ran out of office in 1989. The Communists, who had jettisoned their cosmonaut before the voting began, were now poised to select Havel's successor. On the face of it they would be more inclined to support the candidate for the leftist government rather than the conservative opposition. They invited Sokol to make his case before them, on the anniversary marking their rise to power no less. It must have been galling for Sokol, a signer of the famed 1977 Charter challenging the Communist state, to now have to go begging for their votes. His lack of political acumen is evident by the fact that he got absolutely nowhere with them. Klaus, who lives and breathes politics, had already done his knocking during the first round of voting. The man who led the country's messy transition to a free market in the 1990s has always been anathema to the Communist faithful. But he shares their disdain for Havel, and his skepticism towards the European Union and military action against Iraq has gone down well with their view of the world, which hasn't changed all that much since their heyday in power. And they didn't have to be reminded of the service Klaus did them during last summer's parliamentary elections, when he turned off many voters with a campaign centered around his own personality. As a result, the Communists were able to make the gains that have now cast them in the role of kingmaker. In a sense, they owed him, and so they put him over the top with two votes to spare. The question now is whether Klaus will do anything to bring them back into the mainstream of political life. In the days leading up to the election, he indicated he would reverse Havel's refusal to enter into negotiations with the Communists regarding matters of state. For its part, Klaus' party has already shown that it can work hand in hand with them. Just days before the presidential vote, the Civic Democrats and Communists teamed up to block the passage of a bill that would have provided a government pension to Havel (who, granted, hardly needs one). Maybe once Klaus is ready to retire from office, they will band together again and this time approve it. The country can only hope that they get into their own bathroom brawl before then.