Czech democracy in the mirror: What the presidential elections tell us

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandev via Wikimedia Commons

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change.

 Some of the lessons of the presidential elections are familiar ones.

 First, they confirm that Czech politics is largely a contest between left and right – and that left and right in the Czech context can be largely reduced to conflicts over economic distribution: ‘Who Gets What, When and How’ to borrow to the phrase of the American political scientist H.D Laswell.

 Miloš Zeman built his political career during 1990s – and made the then marginal Social Democrats (ČSSD) a serious political force – by understanding this.  He has now rebuilt that career by sticking the same basic insight. The Zeman campaign was no masterpiece of political communication, but it cut with the grain of how most Czech voters see things, especially those squeezed in economically hard times.

 Ducking or denying the left-right divide may work for a newly launched party hoping to win over a limited chunk of the electorate like TOP09 when it first contested elections in 2010. It is a much less sure-fire strategy for winning a presidential contest where broad swathe of voters need to be mobilised.

 Second, they confirm that a party or bloc that cannot reach beyond Prague and major urban centres will lose. The Czech Republic is a country of small and medium sized towns, not big metropolises. This was well understood by Václav Klaus in 1990s when he founded the Civic Democrats (ODS) as a party with a strong regional base and later by Zeman when he toured the provinces as leader of ČSSD in his Zemák battlebus. Like other before him, Schwarzenberg undermined by his inability to win support in breadth as well as in depth.

 Third, the elections show that although Czech voters are strongly averse to parties and party politicians, they are in the end reluctant to do without them. The success of Schwarzenberg and (ultimately) Zeman suggested voters wanted seasoned politicians at arm’s length from the party-political establishment, not anti-politicians. Tellingly, both the technocratic, former caretaker prime minister Jan Fischer and multi-tattooed “citizens’ candidate” Vladimir Franz polled far below expectations.  We may also ask whether Karel Schwarzenberg was, in the end, best served by the clever and inventive marketing that turned him from an elder statesman to a pop art icon with no discernable political message.

 Fourth, the elections tell us that questions of national identity still matter in Czech politics. In hindsight the distinct background of Karel Schwarzenberg was always going to leave him vulnerable to attack. The appearance in the campaign of the Beneš Decrees – the emotive issue of postwar ‘transfer’ of Czechoslovakia’s ethnic German population in 1945-6 – and the brutal questioning of the aristocratic Schwarzenberg’s Czechness by opponents were as predictable as they were ugly.

 The underlying questions raised– What does it mean to be Czech? Who is and is not Czech? Should citizens be represented by those socially and culturally like them? – are well established and legitimate. What is striking for any external observer, however, is the very limited range of very traditional ideas about Czech identity and history that politicians feel they can acceptably give in response.

At the same time, there is so far little sign that such old-style nationalist politics– národovectví as it is often termed in Czech – are set to reshape the political scene. That around tenth of ODS supporters appear to have heeded Václav Klaus’s advice to vote for the socialist Zeman rather than the conservative Schwarzenberg because the latter is too foreign is, in its own way, extraordinary, but is essentially a political footnote.

But the elections also highlight undercurrents of change.

The marginalization of established parties – and the rapidity with which they have acquiesced to it – is extraordinary.  Candidates of small extra-parliamentary parties do not normally win national elections with such ease.  Few prospective governing parties would greet the fourth place finish of their candidate as a success as ČSSD did.  The debacle suffered by ODS candidate Přemysl Sobotka, who polled 2.46%, hardly needs comment.

Parties have no doubt calculated that the personality-centred nature of the presidential contest will give way to politics as usual at the next parliamentary elections. However, they may find that having acquired a taste for a new and different set of contenders, voters may again look beyond the mainstream.

The presidential elections may bring change in the way politics is organised. The looser knit campaign structures of presidential candidates have arguably been just as effective at fighting elections as conventional party organisation. They have also been a laboratory for political campaigning. Miloš Zeman’s correctly calculated that to reach his voters TV performances matter than any amount of web presence. But even the traditional political operators of the Zeman campaign, know that this may not hold true in future.

 The successes and limitations of the Schwarzenberg campaign’s use of social media will be carefully studied, as will the wholly unexpected grassroots initiative to nominate Vladimír Franz.  As both campaigns quickly realised, a political movement that can come up with successful recipe to co-ordinate web-based campaigning with more traditional political activity on the ground will be a powerful force.

When President Zeman takes office on 8 March he will therefore preside over a political system which, like him, is still very recognisably a product of post-communist democracy that formed in 1990s.

 When he steps down in five or ten years’ time, however, the political landscape may look appreciably different.

This article was first published in Czech in Hospodářské noviny on 30 January 2013 and appears here in English with permission.

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