Havel elected 25 years ago

Czechoslovak Communist MPs helped elect Havel president at end of 1989

Prague, Dec 27 (ČTK) — The Czechoslovak Communist Federal Assembly unanimously elected dissident and former “enemy of the socialist regime” Václav Havel to be the president of the country on Dec. 29, 1989 and millions of people watched this election on television in astonishment.

This event, occurring 25 years ago, seems like a scene from an absurd drama, similar to those that Havel wrote. In May 1989 Havel was still in prison.

The resignation of the communist leaders was one of the key demands of the Civic Forum (OF), the opposition umbrella movement leading the Velvet Revolution that began with the brutal suppression of a calm student demonstration on Nov. 17.

Last communist president Gustáv Husák (in office 1975–89) resigned Dec. 10. Husák was general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in the “normalisation” period after the Soviet occupation of the country that crashed the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968.

In the backstage, the fight over who will be the next head of state started after Husák’s departure. The main political powers realized that the president can play an important role in the time before the first free election.

Havel said then he did not want to be president, but that he would occupy the post for a short time, if needed. He was the candidate of the OF.

Other candidates were Communist premier Ladislav Adamec and two 1968 Prague Spring reform Communist leaders, Alexander Dubček and Čestmír Císař.

The Communists proposed a direct presidential election in an effort to hinder the development that was unfavorable for them. Havel was not known to the broad public very much, while Adamec seemed more popular, at least until his speech at a massive demonstration at Prague-Letná on Dec. 26 when people hissed and booed at him.

The OF rejected the direct election, but it did not know how to make Havel president.

However, Communist lawyer Marián Čalfa, who was part of the government already before 1989, saw this as an opportunity to prove his loyalty to the transition to democracy.

On Dec. 15, new prime minister Čalfa had a private talk with Havel and he offered his full support to Havel.

Čalfa offered his help in promoting Havel’s presidential candidature and he rejected the OF plan of a partial personnel change in the Federal Assembly and the postponement of the presidential election until late January 1990.

Havel believed that the Communist MPs would not elect him president, but Čalfa claimed that these MPs are used to do what they are told and that they would cooperate if the plan is pushed through resolutely.

An agreement was reached based on which Dubček would be made parliament chairman and Havel the head of state.

However, there were formal obstacles that had to be removed. Among others, Havel could not be elected president because he was sentenced by court. He was punished for participation in street protests held in January 1989. After Husák gave up the post of president, Čalfa temporarily gained some presidential powers and he granted pardon to Havel.

The most difficult task was to persuade the Communist MPs to vote in support of Havel. Čalfa did not describe his actions in detail, but he indicated that he had to press on them very hard.

“I was really very brutal to them. There were some deputies who had to be reprimanded. … After all, they felt this would be their last vote in the parliament,” Čalfa said.

Finally, all the MPs presented supported Havel in the vote on Dec. 29.

Havel occupied the post of Czechoslovak president until July 1992, and after Czechoslovakia’s split in 1993 he was elected the first Czech president. His second and final five-year tenure expired in February 2003.

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