In three rounds of voting, Parliament failed Wednesday to elect a successor to Czech President Vaclav Havel, opening the door to intense political horse-trading over who will follow the famous dissident playwright-turned-leader.
The inconclusive result raised the prospect that former Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who was not a candidate Wednesday, may capture the post with Communist support. Zeman, of the left-leaning Social Democrats, had declined to run in the first day's balloting but said that if there was a deadlock he would consider becoming a candidate.
"Failure of the first election ... fulfills the plan of the followers of ex-Prime Minister Milos Zeman, who are determined to do all they can so that their favorite becomes the new president," prominent political commentator Alexander Mitrofanov said after the day's voting. "The Communists have said repeatedly they could vote for him."
The next round of voting is expected in about two weeks. Havel's second term ends Feb. 2, and he is ineligible by law to run again.
Unlike various former Communist parties in Eastern Europe that have changed their names and become social democratic parties, the Czech Communists retain an image of being largely unreformed since the 1989 collapse of a Soviet-backed dictatorship. As a result, they have been ostracized by all mainstream parties.
The Communists made a relatively strong showing, however, in parliamentary elections last June, winning 41 seats in the lower house, and they seem intent on using their newfound influence in the presidential balloting to edge back toward respectability.
The Czech president is elected by members of Parliament's 200-seat lower Chamber of Deputies and the 81-seat Senate, under a complicated set of rules that change as balloting goes through subsequent rounds.
Balloting began Wednesday with four candidates, two of whom were eliminated in the first round. Conservative former Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and centrist Senate President Petr Pithart, like Havel a former dissident, faced off in the second and third rounds. But neither could capture the votes required to win, largely because Communist lawmakers abstained.
Also, some Social Democratic politicians voted for Klaus in an apparent effort to deny victory to Pithart, who had been considered the favorite before the vote.
Klaus finished first in the third round with 113 votes to Pithart's 84, but 141 votes were needed to win. Klaus said he would run again, but it wasn't clear whether Pithart would remain in the race.
Communist nominee Jaroslav Krizenecky and Social Democratic nominee Jaroslav Bures, a former justice minister, were the losers in the first round.
Some observers have expected all along that Bures would fail and Zeman would take his place as the Social Democrats' candidate.
Miroslav Gregr, a Social Democrat and minister of industry under Zeman, wrote Wednesday in a commentary in Pravo, a leading newspaper, that Zeman "wants to be president" and that if elected he would be a leader who displays "national pride and self-confidence, personal modesty, hard work and courage."
Although the Czech presidency has relatively little direct power, Havel made it a platform from which he spoke internationally as a moral authority and worked domestically to strengthen the foundations of democracy.
In a short speech before Wednesday's voting, Havel looked back on his own record in office and said: "I did what I could. Perhaps quite a few things came off well, and perhaps I botched some."
Havel -- who helped lead his country into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and is a strong advocate of the Czech Republic standing firmly with its allies -- alluded in his speech to a pending parliamentary vote on Czech participation in any conflict with Iraq over its alleged development of weapons of mass destruction.
"One of the specific circumstances of this election of a president," he said, "is that in the coming days you will be deciding on ... our participation in the defense of mankind from a very dangerous threat. Your decision-making will not be simple, and cannot be simple."
Late Wednesday, Havel issued a statement declaring that the day's failure to produce a winner "is not a catastrophe, but it is a pity."
Times staff writer Holley reported from Moscow and special correspondent Drapalova from Prague.