Press Advisories

25. 2. 2010 10:13

The 1920 Constitution

The Office of the Government of the Czech Republic remembers the 90th anniversary of the adoption of the first Czechoslovak Constitution.

The initial formulation of the new constitutional arrangements after the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia was drawn up in the form of the first law of the land by one of the ‘men of the 28th October’, lawyer Alois Rašín. The law promulgated creation of the new independent state, while leaving the decision on its future form to the National Assembly. An important part of this new law was the clause which declared that the existing Austrian and Hungarian laws remain in force, which was aimed at preventing potential chaos.

After the return of a part of the national political representation from negotiations with the exile in Geneva, the provisional constitution was adopted on November 13, 1918. This document reflected the ideas discussed during the joint meetings of the national and foreign political representatives. The hitherto functioning National Committee was transformed, by adoption of additional members, into the National Assembly, which was sometimes also called the Revolutionary National Assembly. The parliament thus did not arise from elections, but was created by appointment of individual members by presidiums of various political parties.

One of the most important tasks of this parliament was the adoption of the definite constitution. The constitutional document of the Czech Republic was eventually adopted after several hours of debate on February 29, 1920. Czechoslovakia was to become a democratic republic where the source of all power rested with its people. The legislative powers were entrusted to the bicameral National Assembly. More powers were conferred upon the Chamber of Deputies which was to have 300 legislators, elected for 6 years. Less power was delegated to the second chamber of the National Assembly – to the Senate. The Senate comprised of 150 senators elected for 8 years. Both chambers were elected on the basis of proportional electoral system, with different number of electoral districts. The Senate never served its full term of office. The Senate was actually dissolved after each election into the Chamber of Deputies with the argument that its composition does not reflect the moods of the electorate. The proportionally identical political composition of both chambers further degraded the mission of the Senate, which then played a very small role in the political system, and in fact functioned as a holding pen for retired politicians.

During periods when the National Assembly was not in session, the so-called State Committee assumed power, which was a body comprising of 16 deputies and 8 senators. The Committee was empowered to adopt exigent ‘measures’ with power equal to law, which had to be retroactively approved during the next session of the National Assembly. An important element of the system was a lack of any clause which would limits entry of small parties into the parliament. Thanks to this feature many outright marginal political parties found their way into the parliamentary benches. In large part, these parties represented voters who were rather ill-disposed to the state. This significantly impeded creation of government coalitions. A major benefit of this system was the adoption of liberal electoral laws. The suffrage was universal, exercised by both sexes, secret and direct. Suffrage was extended to women even before the adoption of the Constitution.

The executive powers were divided between the government and the President. The government was appointed by the President; however in political terms it was responsible to the parliament, specifically to the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber of Deputies passed a confidence vote on the government and similarly, upon a motion of at least one hundred deputies, it could pass a no confidence vote, which however had not happened during the validity of that Constitution. The government passed resolutions unanimously, and as a whole, it had the right of legislative initiative, meaning it was able to propose laws to the parliament for adoption. In the event that the National Assembly failed to adopt a bill submitted by the government, the government had the right to call for a national referendum on the matter, a procedure which was however never applied during the First Republic period. Due to the already mentioned non-existence of limits on entry of small parties into the parliament, all Czechoslovak governments were coalition governments. In overwhelming majority, these governments were formed on the basis of the so-called broad coalition, which meant that all parties willing to support the Czechoslovak Republic in its democratic form were sharing governmental powers.

This had become a larger and larger problem, especially during the 1930s, when a number of nationalistic or socially marginal parties emerged. This situation also contributed to a certain conservation of the entire political system, which in practical terms did not experience the usual democratic alternation of the left and the right. The individual ministries were claimed by the same political parties, which lead to corruption and political patronage. In order to arrive at a political compromise a powerful extra-constitutional body was established in the 1920s, the so-called ‘Big Five’, which comprised of representatives of the five largest political parties. During the 1930s this body resurfaced in the form of the ‘Big Eight’.

The President was the head of the state. He was elected at a bicameral session of the parliament for seven years, with a term limit of 2 terms; the first president was exempted from this provision (due to his extraordinary and distinguished service). T. G. Masaryk was eventually elected four times into the office. Candidates for the presidency had to be at least 35 years old.

Initially, it was proposed that the minimum age for candidates for president will be the same as for senators, i.e. 40 years of age, but Masaryk, who wished that Beneš succeed him in the event of his demise, and who was very young at the time of adoption of the new constitution, the age requirement was eventually lowered. The President had similar powers as today – he appointed and received ambassadors, appointed the government and accepted its resignation, appointed high-ranking civil servants, army officers and university functionaries.

The constitution did not delegate any legislative initiatives to the President; he could only postpone validity of laws, on the basis of the so-called right of suspension veto, and return them for further debate in the Chamber of Deputies. The Chamber was obviously entitled to re-affirm any such returned laws. According to the text of the constitution any act of the President, whether executive or governmental, required a counter-signature of a responsible member of the government in order to be considered valid. T. G. Masaryk enjoyed, besides the authority delegated upon him by the Constitution, also a major informal prestige arising from the respect paid to him by the Czechoslovak society. This respect in certain instances almost bordered on personality cult.

The constitution also regulated the judiciary powers, which were entrusted to a not overly structured system of courts. The judges were independent in the exercise of their powers and bound only by the law. Outside of this system of courts existed the Constitutional Court, which was tasked with the review of constitutionality of laws. This institution however never properly functioned during the period of the First Republic, and was in fact substituted by the Supreme Administrative Court. The Constitution also listed a catalogue of the basic citizen’s rights and freedoms, with a certain focus on the protection of the rights of minorities.

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