Czechoslovak Constitution of 1920
After World War I, Czechoslovakia established itself and as a republic and democracy with the establishment of the Constitution of 1920. The constitution was adopted by the National Assembly on 29 February 1920 and replaced the provisional constitution adopted on 13 November 1918.1
The constitution was modelled after constitutions of established Western democracies that had stood the test of time. Among its most notable influences were those of the United Kingdom, United States and France. The system of government the constitution introduced made Czechoslovakia the most westernized of all of the central and eastern European nations on the verge of World War II.
The constitution created a parliament but also a president and cabinet, sharing powers of executive branch. Beneath them was a judiciary that was advanced with many levels of courts delegated for various types of cases.
The parliament, the National Assembly, was bicameral. The Chamber of Deputies consisted of 300 members elected for 6 years. The Senate consisted of 150 members elected for 8 years. Suffrage was exercised by all citizens, of both sexes, over the age of 21 for elections to the lower chamber; and over the age of 26 for elections to the senate. Candidates for the lower chamber had to be at least 30 years of age; and for the senate, at least 45 years of age.
The parliamentary system that was installed created a complicated system of proportional representation, with relatively few constituents for each representative. This allowed for a great variety of political parties to emerge, with no clear front runner or leading political entity. It was possible to get a seat with as little as 2.6 percent of the vote. With so many parties as part of the national forum (a typical Chamber of Deputies during the First Republic had well over 10 factions represented), it was all but impossible for one party to win the 151 seats needed for a majority. No party came close to being able to govern alone until the Communist Party was able to secure nearly fifteen percent of the seats in the 1948 elections. This flaw of the Constitution meant that the government was at times stalled out and unable to effectively legislate.
If parliament rejected a government bill, the cabinet could unanimously refer the proposed law to referendum. No recourse was made to this constitutional provision during the First Republic.
The president was elected by both chambers of parliament in joint session (acting in accordance with the standing orders of the lower chamber). The presidential term of office was of 7 years, with a two-term limit (the first president was exempted from this provision). Candidates for the presidency had to be at least 35 years old. The framers intended for the prime minister and cabinet to hold the real power. Hence, the constitutional powers of the president were limited. However, the personal prestige of the first two presidents, Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš, and the instability of successive governments meant that the president wielded in practice more authority than the plain text of the constitution suggested. The constitution laid down that all executive functions rested with the government except as expressly assigned to the president. However, as the president could address written or verbal messages to parliament, appoint and dismiss ministers, attend and preside over cabinet meetings, and demand written reports from individual ministers, presidential influence on the executive was in practice considerable.
The president concluded and ratified international treaties, saving that treaties imposing personal or military burdens upon the subject or involving territorial changes required parliamentary consent.
The president could send any act of parliament back to the parliament, with accompanying observations. Whereupon, parliament could by majority vote re-affirm the law to bypass the president. If there was no majority in the senate, then the lower chamber could pass the law unilaterally by a subsequent vote by means of a three-fifths majority, bypassing the upper chamber and the president.
The president was army's commander-in-chief, with the power to appoint all high-ranking officers, university professors, judges and senior civil servants.
Carpathian Ruthenia had been formally included within the Czecho-Slovak state from 1919. The 1920 constitution provided for the autonomy of the territory. However, these provisions remained a dead letter in practice, as the supposedly autonomous institutions were controlled from Prague.
A constitutional act was adopted alongside the constitution on the same day, and was considered one of the constitutional texts. It established the "Czechoslovak language" (i.e. Czech and Slovak considered as two official dialects of one language) as an official language, but also granted status to minority languages in areas where at least 20% of the citizens spoke such a language.
The Constitution of 1920 would serve as the guiding document for the government of Czechoslovakia until World War II. And even after Czechoslovakia came under the control of the Soviet Union, the constitution would still continue to govern the way the state’s internal affairs by serving as the underlying example for the country’s next constitution, with provisions being made for a separate and more localized Slovak government. These local governments from that point forward would control Slovakia, with the government established by the constitution ruling over the more basic common matters as well as the Czech half of the nation.
- "The 1920 Constitution - 90th anniversary of the adoption of the first Czechoslovak Constitution". The Office of the Government of the Czech Republic. February 25, 2010. Retrieved 31 March 2012.
- Bakke, Elisabeth (2002). "The principle of national self-determination in Czechoslovak constitutions 1920–1992". Retrieved 31 March 2012.
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