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Constitutional debate erupts as early elections are canceled

The Czech Republic hashes out exactly what the judiciary can and can't do in its still fledgling democracy.

Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle, Oct. 9, 2009. Klaus called a Constitutional Court ruling against an amendment that would have facilitated early elections in the Czech Republic "wrong." (David W Cerny/Reuters)

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — When the Constitutional Court struck down a constitutional amendment last month, which was to pave the way for early elections, the political establishment was shocked that the court had asserted itself in such a manner.

Others supported the decision, saying the ruling was not only a breakthrough for the court but was also a watershed event for the country's still fledgling democracy.

Early elections seemed inevitable after the government collapsed in the spring following a vote of-no-confidence in parliament. In an effort to hasten the cumbersome process toward early elections, parliament passed a new amendment that the Constitutional Court subsequently nixed, ruling against what it called a retroactive and stop-gap measure.

The ruling has unleashed a constitutional debate about the fundamental duties and authority of the judiciary. As the Czech Republic’s democracy continues to develop, such a debate is both reflective of the country’s journey toward a strong democracy and integral to it.

Many political leaders could barely contain their rage at the ruling. President Vaclav Klaus went so far as to call the court's decision “wrong.” (By definition, of course, the Constitutional Court cannot be wrong. Regardless of what anyone thinks of a particular ruling the constitution means what the court says it means.)

Political analyst Jiri Pehe said the president's comment illustrated the fact that the country's democracy is still a work in progress.

“To say the Constitutional Court is wrong is, from a political point of view, totally wrong,” he said. “And certainly it should not be a president of the country ... who should be saying this. It is really not healthy for our democracy if ... the president of the country [is] not only criticizing the Constitutional Court but basically rejecting the ruling.”

Pehe, concluded: “I can't imagine anything of the sort in any developed democracy.”

But others, like Jan Kudrna who teaches constitutional law and political science at Charles University, say the court overstepped its powers. He says the court's authority is limited to so-called regular laws — those passed by a simple majority in parliament — and whether or not they violate the constitution. But constitutional amendments — those passed by a three-fifths majority in parliament — are beyond the court's purview.

“Changes to the constitution are untouchable by the Constitutional Court,” he said. “The court should respect the constitution.”

Kudrna argues that parliament should have the final word on amending the constitution because the MPs are accountable to the electorate, whereas the Constitutional Court judges are political appointees.

“The people are the sovereign in this country,” he said.