Havel triumphs after bumpy ride

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After scenes of parliamentary uproar, a bomb scare, and vicious attacks against him personally, Vaclav Havel, the former dissident, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia, was last night elected the first president of the newly born Czech Republic.

Mr Havel's passage to power was expected to be smooth. With the backing of the four-party governing coalition, and several opposition MPs, he was assured of gaining more than 50 per cent of the 200 parliamentary votes needed to triumph. In the event, he received 109 votes, just eight more than the 101 required.

MPs of the right-wing Republican Party, who had put up their own candidate, had been determined to make it a rough ride. They stood in turn to condemn Mr Havel, 56, accusing him of being a former Nazi collaborator, a Communist, an alcoholic and, curiously, a representative of BMW.

When Jan Vik, one of the Republican MPs, said Mr Havel's policies as president from 1990 to 1992 had inflicted large-scale damage on Czechoslovakia and caused bloodshed of civil-war proportions, government and many opposition MPs walked out in protest. Then the whole parliament had to be cleared for half an hour after a member of the public, watching the debate on television, issued a hoax bomb warning. Jan Ruml, the Interior Minister, said the hoaxer claimed 'he couldn't watch that filth any more'.

After the vote, Mr Havel said Czechs would notice 'a certain difference in the manner of my work', because he was 'more experienced and wiser now'. He will be inaugurated on 2 February for a five-year term.

'The President can no longer be seen by society as the omnipotent leader of the nation,' he said, referring to the image he had among many Czechoslovaks after the revolution. Mr Havel said maintaining close ties with Slovakia was top of his agenda.

The tumultuous parliamentary proceedings overshadowed what should have been a day of celebration for Mr Havel. Admittedly, his new position as President of the Czech Republic will not quite be what he had in mind: it will, in effect, be largely ceremonial, with real power remaining in the hands of parliament. Nor will Mr Havel wield the moral authority he did in the aftermath of the revolution. Although popular, the President is no longer perceived to be the reluctant hero he once was.

To many, Mr Havel's U-turns on policy over the past 12 months have smacked of naked ambition. 'In the end, he has shown himself to be very much like other politicians,' said one Prague diplomatic source. 'It is a shame. It was nice - and rare - to have a politician one could look up to.'

While Mr Havel sets about carving a new role in Prague, MPs in Bratislava will today cast votes in the second round of the Slovak presidential race, which is almost certain to see Roman Kovac, a protege of Vladimir Meciar, the Prime Minister, beat off his closest rival, Milan Ftacnik, of the former Communist SDL Party.

In the first round of the vote, held yesterday, Mr Kovac secured 69 of the 147 votes cast in total, while Mr Ftacnik emerged in second place with 30.

(Photograph omitted)