It is the end of an era. Czech President Vaclav Havel, the last of the anticommunist heroes still in power in Central or Eastern Europe, leaves office Sunday.
A renowned playwright and political prisoner before the 1989 "Velvet Revolution," Havel was catapulted into the president's chair by his charisma and the proverbial circumstance of being in the right place at the right time. After 13 years at the helm, first of Czechoslovakia and then of the Czech Republic, he remains the only figure most Czechs can envision in the castle overlooking Prague.
"He is a star that rose above everyday politics," says Olga Sommerova, a Czech film director. "A person like that is born only once in a hundred years."
After Havel steps down, the Czech Republic will be left without a president, just as the country contemplates going to war for the first time in its short history. The Czechs are reinforcing their chemical unit in Kuwait in anticipation of a US call for aid in a war with Iraq. Although the president wields little real power under the Czech constitutional system, he is considered a symbol of the nation and crucial to morale in troubled times.
In recent months, members of Parliament have gone through contortions worthy of one of Havel's absurdist plays, trying to find a candidate who can win the majority of votes necessary to take the presidency and also be acceptable to the country's major political parties. Parliament, which constitutionally must elect the president, has failed six times in two rounds of voting to choose a replacement for Havel, who must step down after two terms. Some deputies have spoiled their ballots rather than vote for the nominees offered.
Last week, two Czech political heavyweights - the controversial right-wing economist, Vaclav Klaus, and the former Communist Milos Zeman - went head to head. For a moment, it appeared that Mr. Klaus might win, but Jaroslava Moserova, who previously served as ambassador to Australia, crashed the match, gaining just enough votes to cost Klaus a victory.
Now, parliament must decide whether to attempt another vote or change the constitution to allow for a direct election.
"There is a 50 percent chance there will be a direct election," says Jiri Pehe, a prominent political analyst and former Havel adviser. "It would be a total fiasco if parliament votes again and no one is elected again. That would really start to damage the Czech Republic internationally."
The presidential campaign, plagued with mudslinging, has left the public bemused and disheartened. Pehe and other analysts say there is a desperate need for fresh candidates but little chance for new faces to emerge because of the gridlock among the top political parties.
"Political parties want a president they can control," says Michal Hybek, a journalist who was part of Havel's inner circle before the Velvet Revolution. "I suppose it is inevitable that we join the rest of the world in petty politics, but I'm afraid that soon we will look back on Havel's time and ache for those days to return. We should be glad we had him as long as we did."
In the West, Havel has been elevated to the status of a fairy-tale hero, the pen that proved mightier than the communist sword. He was granted a private audience with the Pope, received dozens of honorary doctorates, and, with a super-human schedule, made 227 state visits to foreign countries.
But the Havel whom Czechs see is a much more human figure, with plenty of faults and idiosyncrasies.
After spending nearly five years in prison - for organizing demonstrations against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia - Havel was introduced to wider Czech society when the main Communist newspaper Rude Pravo published a major article in the late 1980s labeling him a danger to society and an enemy of the state. His writings were banned, which made them instantly popular among discontented Czechs.
Havel was thrust into the center of a revolution led by artists and actors. A few months later, the Communist regime collapsed, and Havel was one of the few topics that the new factions could agree on. Massive demonstrations demanded that he ascend to the castle, and an election followed that sent the dissident in blue jeans to the top.
Havel had no political or diplomatic training and, as a result, the first years of his presidency were marked by a charming unorthodoxy. He appointed Frank Zappa honorary culture attaché, let his secretaries ride a bright red child's scooter to get from one end of the vast Prague castle to the other, and invited the Dalai Lama to Prague - and spent hours meditating with him.
Chafing at the protocols and formalities of office, the new leader was known for giving his bodyguards the slip, on one occasion going to meet the Rolling Stones at the Prague Airport. Havel confided n 1990 to Mr. Hybek, "I would gladly exchange one day of presidency for a whole year back in prison."
Havel resigned the presidency of Czechoslovakia to protest the country's breakup, which was orchestrated by Czech and Slovak nationalist politicians in 1992. But he agreed to serve as president of the new Czech Republic the following year when the public demanded his return.
As Havel conceded, the nation needed him. For most of his political career, Havel's domestic approval-ratings hovered at a staggering 80 percent. Only in recent years have they fallen to around half, and the foremost reason given on the street is that "the poor old fellow needs a break."
However, Havel has made a few enemies by liberally granting pardons, often justifying them on religious grounds. And he offended some by remarrying just a year after the death of his first wife, who was deeply admired by the public. He has also left many of his old allies by the wayside, as he "grew up" politically, gradually taking on the trappings of office and surrounding himself with political professionals.
"Havel forgot his old friends," Hybek says. "It will be very hard or impossible for him to ever go back. The people who are attached to him now are out for political gain and that is now the atmosphere of the presidency and the succession."