Czechoslovak MPs vote to unseat Havel

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VACLAV HAVEL, the dissident playwright who led Czechoslovakia's peaceful revolution against Communism, failed to win re-election to his country's presidency yesterday. It was a setback not only to Mr Havel but to his efforts to prevent the break-up of the Czechoslovak federation.

Despite his vast international prestige and great popularity at home, Mr Havel was rejected as head of state in a parliamentary ballot in which he was the only candidate. The key votes against him came from a bloc of Slovak nationalists in the House of Nations, one of the two sections of the Federal Assembly.

'It is a tragedy,' said the new Prime Minister, Jan Strasky. 'I do not mean the fact that he was not elected, but that there were so desperately few votes for him in the Slovak part of the House.'

Mr Havel garnered enough votes from Czech parliamentarians to keep the presidency for another four more years, but only 18 Slovaks supported him in the House of Nations. He needed 38 Slovak votes to stay in office. The Slovaks voted against him because they regard him as insufficiently sensitive to their desire for self- rule.

Angry Czechs gathered outside the Federal Assembly to jeer, and spat at the Slovak MPs who voted the President out of office. Deputies ran a gauntlet of hundreds of protesters outside the building, which stands close to Prague's Wenceslas Square where Mr Havel was acclaimed by the crowds that swept him in to office in the aftermath of Czechoslovakia's 'Velvet Revolution' 30 months ago.

Many MPs left the federal parliament furtively by a side entrance. One was almost run over as he raced across a busy highway to escape from the demonstrators. Czech politicians hostile to Mr Havel also had narrow escapes. Miroslav Sladek, leader of the far- right Republican Party, was chased into a metro station and had to be rescued by police.

'We want Havel . . . Slovaks are traitors, Slovaks go home,' the demonstrators outside parliament chanted. Mr Havel himself took his defeat, expected since elections a month ago highlighted the bitter divisions between Czechoslovakia's two parts and confirmed the country's likely split into two independent states, in typical philosophical manner.

His defeat by Slovak deputies 'highlighted the polarisation of the country', Mr Havel said in a statement issued through his spokes-man.

'President Havel hopes that the Federal Assembly will be more successful in electing another candidate,' the presidential spokesman, Michael Zantovsky said. 'It would be useless to cover up the fact that Vaclav Havel was elected by Czech deputies but not by the Slovaks,' the Czech leader Vaclav Klaus pointedly said before leaving parliament for London and talks with the Prime Minister, John Major.

Last month's elections effectively split Czechoslovakia, with Mr Klaus becoming the Czech regional prime minister and the equally hardline Vladimir Meciar heading the Slovak government after sweeping the region with pledges to loosen ties with Prague.

Mr Meciar had vowed to block Mr Havel's re-election and the deputies of his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) carried out the promise. 'The Czech people will regard this as another step towards casting doubts on the common state (of Czechs and Slovaks),' Mr Klaus said. HZDS leaders said they would accept another Czech, but not Mr Havel, as president of the rapidly disintegrating country.

Mr Havel, who once said he did not want to serve out his days as a clerk overseeing the demise of his country, had devoted all the authority of his office to a campaign to keep Czechoslovakia united. After the two largest Czech and Slovak political parties reached an agreement last month on the division of their country, he declared that such an important matter could not be decided without a referendum. Now however, Czechoslovakia's break-up seems likelier than ever and Mr Havel faces being forced out of office on 5 October, his 56th birthday.

Only last Thursday, the President swore in an interim federal government charged with the task of preparing the way for a peaceful separation between the Czech lands and Slovakia. That process has accelerated since elections a month ago, in which the left-leaning nationalist Movement for a Democratic Slovakia emerged as the largest Slovak party, and the free-market, centre-right Civic Democratic Party won in the Czech lands.

Mr Havel, who was not present at the Federal Assembly for yesterday's vote, has left open the option of running for the presidency of the Czech republic, if such a post is created.