Tucked around the corner from Malostranské náměstí in the Lesser Quarter is one of the key institutions of the Czech Parliament, the Czech Chamber of Deputies.
The chamber itself is on Sněmovní Street. No surprise, since “sněmovna” means, alternatively, parliament or chamber in the sense of a place for political meetings.
The Czech Parliament is bicameral. The two chambers are the Chamber of Deputies, which is the lower house, and the Senate, which is the upper house. The Chamber of Deputies has 200 members. The senate has 81 senators. The Senate in its present form was not established until 1992. The Chamber of Deputies is the seat of the Czech government, the head of which is the Prime Minister.
The revived Chamber of Deputies was established in 1861. Under the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the chamber was one of the land diets. The deputies were elected to land diet based on quite exclusive property criteria. The land diets in turn elected members to the House of Deputies, the lower house of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament. Older representative bodies existed but were dissolved in moments of absolutism.
With the collapse of the monarch and the formation of Czechoslovakia the chamber took on a new function as the seat of government for the whole country until 1938, then the seat of government for the Czech lands during the second republic, until it collapsed with the Nazi invasion.
Voting rights also became less restrictive. Universal suffrage for men and women without property requirement was guaranteed from the beginning of the new state’s birth in 1918.
- The headquarters of the parliament stretches over four palaces: Thunovský, Auersperský, Smiřických and Šternberský, plus another building called simply Sněmovní 1.
- The Chamber of Deputies is located in Thunovský Palace.
- In 1779 this palace was converted into a theater. In 1794 the theater burnt down.
- During the period of the first republic there were four elections, ten prime ministers and nineteen governments.
- In the history of the Chamber of Deputies there have been five caretaker governments – three in the first republic and two since the revolution.
- The first prime minister was Karel Kramář, who was in office from 18th November 1918 until 8th July 1919. His government didn’t even last a year, but it was not the shortest.
- The shortest government was under Jan Syrový from 22nd September 1938 to 4th October 1938 or only 13 days. These were extraneous circumstances as it was the last government of the first republic.
- Syrový was in this office for the shortest total time, 13 days in the first republic, and 58 days in the second republic, making a total of 71 days. In recent history the honor goes to Stanislav Gross of ČSSD, who governed for 265 days from 4th August 2004 until 25th April 2005. Masaryk was prime minister for a month during the interim government in 1918.
- The prime minister with the most days in the job was Antonín Švehla, who clocked up 2103 days split over two periods (7/10/1922 to 18/3/1926 and 12/101926 to 1/2/1929). The prime minister with the longest single period in power was Václav Klaus with 2011 days from 2nd July 1992 to 2nd January 1998.
- Václav Klaus and Edvard Beneš are the only politicians to serves as Prime Minister and later be elected president.
The Parties in the Chamber in Brief
ODS – Občanská Demokratická Strana (also known as the Civil Democrats). This is the Czech Republic’s main center-right party. They are fiscally conservative and euro-skeptic.
ČSSD – Česká strana sociálně demokratická, also known as the Social Democrats, they are the Czech Republic’s center-left party.
TOP 09 – the name stands for Tradice, Odpovědnost, Prosperita and 09 is the for the year it was formed, i.e. 2009. It is the other center-right party. Pro-market but not euro-skeptic.
Public Affairs – in Czech, Věci Veřejné, is a center party with a tough anti-corruption stance.
Communist Party – The full name is Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy (the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia), abbreviated to KSČM. It is obviously a leftist party and is not afraid to question market principles.
Who’s who in the Chamber of Deputies
At the time of writing, the government is formed by a coalition of ODS, TOP 09 and Public Affairs. The Prime Minister is Petr Nečas from ODS. Other high profile ministers Karel Schwarzenberg, the Foreign Minister from TOP 09 and Radek John, former journalist and novelist, who is the Minister of the Interior for Public Affairs. The leader of the ČSSD is Bohuslav Sobotka. The chairperson of the Chamber of Deputies is Miroslava Němcová from ODS.
Elections to the Chamber of Deputies are based on proportional representation. Every Czech citizen 18 years of age and over has the right to vote. Elections occur every four years and are held over two days, always a Friday and Saturday. Voters either select a party on the ballot, which distributes preferences, or selects the party and numbers the candidates, 1 to 4, themselves. Voters should vote in the region where they have their permanent address unless they obtain a “voter’s pas” (voličský průkaz). This document entitles the holder to vote anywhere in the Czech Republic outside the region where they officially live.
In order to be represented in the chamber a party needs at least 5% of the nationwide vote. This means that even if a party fairs well in one region it will not be able to get a seat in the chamber if the total votes for that party are below 5%.
The seats are not contested individually as in the UK. Rather the Czech Republic is divided into 14 election regions. The 200 seats in the chamber are then divided amongst the regions. The process is a bit complicated and can result in a different number of seats per region after each election. Anyway, the total number of votes cast in the country is divided by the number of members of parliament. This is the republic mandate number. The total number of votes in each region is then divided by this number to determine the number of seats contested for the region. The seats are then distributed via the d’Hondt Method. This link includes a good example how the method works.
This system of voting has meant that in its democratic history, the Chamber of Deputies has always been governed by coalitions. As past and recent history has shown, this has made for fairly unstable governments. Yet, the fall of a government doesn’t always result in a new election straight away. (Given the complexity of sorting out seats, it’s hardly surprising.) Either the existing parties will try to form a new coalition or a caretaker government is formed until an election is called.
Also, a new election is not called if a deputy has to resign. The seat remains in the hands of the party who then gives it to another party member.
And if none of this helps, The Czech Bureau of Statistics have this page to explain things.
Passing legislation is the Chamber´s main function. New bills or proposals are presented to the chamber. If it passes its first reading it is then sent to relevant committees to discuss feasibility and amendments. At the second reading, the Chamber again votes on both amendments and the final draft. If the bill passes it goes to the Senate, who can either approve it or send it back but can’t make amendments. If the Senate rejects the bill this decision can be overturned by a simple majority in the lower house. Once approved, the bill goes to the president. If he signs it, it becomes law. If he vetoes it than the lower house can attempt to pass it with an absolute majority- this means more than half of all deputies vote in favor.
The second important function of the lower house is its role with the senate in electing the president. The election takes place in the last 30 days of a president’s term, which lasts five years. To be elected a candidate must win an absolute majority in separate elections in both houses, this means 101 votes in the lower house and 41 in the senate. If no candidate prevails, there is a second round. This time a simple majority is required in both houses. Should no winner result, a final election is held in which both houses are combined. An absolute majority of 141 votes is then required.
Deputies have two types of parliamentary privilege. The first is that a deputy cannot be held accountable for speeches and votes made in both the Chamber and its organs. The second is that a deputy cannot be prosecuted for a crime without the agreement of the Chamber of Deputies. One can’t help but wonder if corruption wouldn’t be a problem if this immunity were removed. However, it’s just a thought.
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