Thursday, February 21, 2013

Presidential Elections in Czech Republic: manual registration of candidates poses a threat to democracy

Prazsky Orloj. Photo: George Groutas
This January, the citizens of Czech Republic were able to vote for their president for the first time. Until Vaclav Klaus, former president who had to step down after serving his maximum two terms, this post used to be appointed by the members of both parliamentary chambers. Although the Czech presidency is largely ceremonial —though important for foreign policy and government formation—, the electoral exercise brought to light the failures of implementing manual voting methods, not only at the ballot level but all the way up to candidate registration.

Nine candidates competed in the first round. Since none of them obtained more than 50% of the votes, the two with the most votes went for second round. These were Miloš Zeman, former prime minister, and Karel Schwarzenberg, an aristocratic foreign affairs minister. In the end, Zeman was elected president. Analysts from point out that Czech Republic’s implementation of a new democratic exercise can be considered successful, although improvements could be done. However, it is not only the act of voting that signals whether an election was successful or not. In this case, suffrage was almost halted long before the polling stations opened.

According to Martin Ehl, political analyst and editor of the foreign affairs section in the Czech newspaper Hospodářské Noviny, the elections were at risk of failure due to a problem with candidate registration that was not addressed on time. The law approving popular voting was sanctioned all too quickly and made candidate registration confusing. Politicians aspiring to the post were even appealing to the Constitutional Court in order to have the law overturned. The election had to go on without some of the intended candidates, as they were not able to register properly.

The mistakes entailed by haste cannot be tolerated in the name of democracy. Failures such as the ones detected during the candidate registration process in Czech Republic contribute to turn democracy into a pale reflection of the true will of the people, as not all sectors of the population are represented in an incomplete list of presidential candidates.

It might be too early to demand a lot from Czech Republic, but since their very first stint in democratic elections almost failed completely, the government should start considering the possibility of implementing a more secure electoral system. What better option, then, than the complete automation of the electoral processes, from candidate registration to polling, scrutiny, and transmission of the results. The nation already took the brave decision of bringing politics closer to the people, now it’s time for it to guarantee the transparency of suffrage at all levels.