Back to the Future: Czech Presidential Elections Round 2

Posted: January 21, 2013 in CEE Politics, Czech Politics
Tags: , , , , ,


Czech voters sprung a surprise in the first round of Presidential elections held on 11th and 12thJanuary, thrusting Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg into the second round run-off at the expense of previous favourite and former Prime Minister Jan Fischer. Having also seen off the candidates of the main Social and Civic Democratic Parties, as well as the tattooed professor Vladimir Franz and raging Eurosceptic Jana Bobošíková, Schwarzenberg will now go head to head with another former PM, Miloš Zeman.

Although the President has little formal power, this is a crucial moment in Czech politics with voters facing a stark choice about the country’s future. The Czech President has significant symbolic importance and an implicit role as the guardian of the nation’s conscience, influencing the socio-political climate and setting the tone for foreign relations. Previously chosen by parliament, this is the first time that Czech voters have been able to directly elect their head of state. This democratic shift has provoked a wave of interest and engagement, flooding Prague cafes and social networks with discussions that have made the election 2013’s hot topic.

Last Men Standing

Schwarzenberg and Zeman (who respectively gained 23.4% and 24.2% of the vote) have differing enough records and personalities to make the second round a genuine choice for voters. The former, who is the current Prince of Schwarzenberg and Duke of Krumlov, spent the communist period in Austria, where he was active in politics and became a leading international critic of human rights violations in the communist bloc. The latter joined the communist party during the Prague Spring, only to leave at the beginning of the repressive ‘normalisation’ period, later struggling to find work.

Both men were closely involved in the Velvet Revolution. Schwarzenberg was a key ally and advisor to dissident and later President Vaclav Havel. A famous photo from the time, widely used in his campaign, sees the prince posing alongside Havel’s unofficial culture minister, Frank Zappa, inviting the viewer to compare their moustaches and recall a carnivalesque era of politics, where possibility seemed real. Re-emerging as foreign minister at a tumultuous time for Czech politics in 2008, Schwarzenberg provided a beacon of integrity amidst the corruption scandals of a political elite seemingly determined to exclude the people from the process.

Zeman also joined Havel’s ‘post-partisan’ movement Civic Forum, becoming a deputy in the federal assembly. Later he contributed to the transformation of the Czech Social Democratic Party, leading the party into minority government in 1998 as part of the notorious ‘opposition agreement with Vaclav Klaus’ Civic Democrats. This period was dogged by corruption, particularly the ‘tunnelling’ scandals that symbolize for many Czechs the all too cosy relation between the main political parties, big business and shadowy figures profiting at the expense of regular people.

Both men have cast aside the established parties of Czech politics, something which voters endorsed in rejecting the candidates of both the Social and Civic Democrats (who placed 4th and 8th respectively). Zeman abandoned the Social Democrats after they displaced him as leader, working for Russian oil giant Lukoil – with whom he maintains close ties – and returning, with the specific goal of a presidential run, at the head of an eponymous ‘Party of Civic Rights – Zemanovci’ in 2009. Schwarzenberg was first proposed as Foreign Minister by the minority Green party, but later went to co-found the Top 09 Party with finance minister Miroslav Kalousek, a political survivor with a murky reputation who, very much inter alia, allegedly interfered into a police corruption investigation.

Many have questioned Schwarzenberg’s alliance with Kalousek and it has become the focus of an increasingly negative Zeman campaign, but it may have been an uncomfortable strategic necessity to actually achieve the higher aim of changing the overall game of Czech politics. This also chimes with voters’ rejection of former premier Fischer, whose campaign by the time of the election looked as tired as he did on lackluster billboards around the country, speaks of a desire for a return of genuine political choice rather than managerial consensus – Fischer was a technocrat appointed as a neutral PM during the coalition crisis of 2009.

The Return of Politics?

With the recent resurgence of the Czech Communist Party (KSCM) in elections to the senate, there is certainly plenty to discuss and dissatisfaction with the austerity consensus in the current coalition (of which Schwarzenberg is part). Condemned by some as a ‘collective memory failure’, the communists’ success, along with the interest shown in the Presidential election, shows the end of Czechs’ passive acquiescence to the selfish, corrupt and elitist consensus that has stabilized in the period of Vaclav Klaus’ presidency, which has excluded many of those who helped overthrow the communist regime. The legacy of the past remains highly sensitive and important, with Fischer’s campaign also dogged by his membership of the party and attack ads showing him in the uniform of the peoples’ militia. This is an issue that Zeman will have to contend with if he tries to attack Schwarzenberg from the left, as are his ties to business and to current President Vaclav Klaus.

Voters are therefore left to choose between two very different candidates although they are both pro-EU and  both very public smokers – Schwarzenberg puffing on his pipe in the centre and Zeman, supposedly to the left with a cigarette in perpetual motion between hand and mouth. Zeman’s supposed wit and fondness for the Czech herbal liquor Becherovka are legendary, but his sharp tongue has called many voters to question his suitability as a representative and uniting figure for the country. Zeman also has a famously volatile relationship with journalists whom he has referred to as “Dirt, scum, amateurs, liars, idiots and prostitutes” according to Czech Radio. Responding to accusations that his government was the most corrupt in Czech history, Zeman threatened to shut down leading critical political weekly Respekt, which was then owned by Schwarzenberg.

Czech EU membership has been dogged by the destructive criticism and insular approach of the small-minded, pen stealing Vaclav Klaus and many are reluctant to throw another combustible character into the mix of their most important political relationship. Schwarzenberg, who knows his way round the corridors of power and has gathered support from many respected public figures, including high-profile human rights lawyer Pavel Čižinský and world-renowned economist Tomáš Sedláček, is likely to maximize Czech influence in the EU rather than continue the antagonistic politics of Klaus.

For all his self-created reputation as a man of the people, Zeman alienates at least as many as he inspires with his borish (some say drunken) behaviour, whereas Schwarzenberg, the aristocrat who is not afraid to style himself as Sid Vicious in his campaign material, attracts genuine warmth from different demographics. He appears to be equally at home in talking high-level policy or chatting with the young denizens of the Mlynska café (one of his favourite haunts), where he is unfailingly polite, amiable and approachable.

In many ways both Zeman and Schwarzenberg represent a chance for Czech voters to go back to the future: Zeman in combining the backfiring belligerence of the Klaus period with the overly cosy political relations of the late 90s; Schwarzenberg in a return to the hope of the early Havel period – the hope that things can be done differently.

  1. Vlad says:

    Just one minor correction: small-minded or not (faced with the thieving eurofanatics casually wasting hundreds of billions of other people’s hard-earned euros, there’s something to be said for small-mindeness 🙂 ) Vaclav Klaus didn’t actually steal the pen, it was complimentary, he was just absent-minded (or, if you prefer, dumb 🙂 ) enough to slowly slip it into his pocket, which did look as if he was stealing it.

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