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Czechoslovak Constitution of 1920: Wikis

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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.

The introduction of the new constitution was based on many of the established Western democracies that had proven themselves through the test of time. Among its most notable influences were those of the British, United States and French democracies. This system of government made Czechoslovakia the most westernized of all of the central and eastern European nations on the verge of World War II.

The constitution provided the nation with not only a parliament but also a president and cabinet that would serve as the executive branch. Beneath them was a judiciary that was advanced with many levels of courts delegated for various types of cases.

Contents

Parliamentary democracy

The parliamentary system that was installed created a representative democracy, where there were relatively few constituents for each representative. This allowed a great variety of political parties to emerge, with no clear front runner or leading political entity. The fact that many political parties came into the national forum by way of the countries’ system of proportional representation meant that it was nearly impossible for any one party to control the government, until the Communist Party was able to secure nearly fifteen percent of the seats. This flaw of the Constitution meant that the government was at times stalled out and unable to effectively legislate.

The parliament, the National Assembly, was bicameral. The Chamber of Deputies consited 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.

If parliament rejected a government bill, the government could unanimously refer the proposed law to referendum. No recourse was made to this constitutional provision during the first republic.

Presidency

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 term limit of 2 terms (the first president was exempted from this provision). Candidates for the presidency had to be at least 35 years old. Although the constitutional powers of the presidency were limited, the personal prestige of the first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and the weakness 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 return to parliament, with accompanying observations, any law. 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 commander-in-chief, and appointed all high-ranking officers, university professors, judges and senior civil servants.

Regional autonomy

In order to satisfy the protection of national minorities required by the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the constitution referred explicitly to the terms of the treaty.

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Carpathian Ruthenia

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).

Language law

A constitutional law 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.

Development of the constitution

The Constitution of 1920 would serve as the guiding document for the government of Czechoslovakia until World War II, at this point and even once the Czechoslovakian state came under the control of the Soviet Union, the constitution would still continue to govern the way the state’s internal affairs were regulated 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 was replaced on 9 May 1948 by the Ninth-of-May Constitution, following the Communist takeover in February 1948.

References

  • A History of the Czechs and Slovaks, RW Seton-Watson, London, 1943
  • Taborsky, Ed. 1944. Czechoslovakia’s Experience with P.R. Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, vol. 26: 49-51. http://jstor.org/ (accessed September 9, 2007).

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