>Economist Švejnar a presidential threat to Klaus, but do Communists hold keys to the Castle?

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The contest for the next Czech President – due to be elected on 8 February by a joint session of both chambers of the Czech parliament early next year – had seemed to be a pretty dull affair of opposition parties predictably failed to get their act together to find a credible challenger to Václav Klaus, has suddenly got very interesting, as the Social Democrats (despite reservations of traditionalist such as influential Deputy leader Zdeněk Škromach) have settled on the Czech-American economist Jan Švejnar as a challenger and – after weighing up the situation – Prof Švejnar has thrown his hat into the ring.
In some ways Švejnar is a curiously similar figure to Klaus, a professional economist with basically liberal free market views, who was involved with the flawed experiment of the early 1990s in mass voucher privatization (he is credited by some as one of the intellectual originators of the voucher concept). A younger man than Klaus (born 1952, VK in 1941), unlike the current President (who may not have had the opportunity or inclination) Švejnar emigrated to the US in 1970 (where, as a dual-national, he is still based) taking a PhD at Princeton and carving out a high profile career as academic economist – his current CV reveals an impresssive stack of forthcoming articles and ongoing projects.
This is all to marked contrast with the self-education in 1970s and 80s of domestic neo-liberal economists like Klaus and Tomáš Ježek (whose recently published memoirs and book on his experiences as Czech privatization minister are high on my Christmas list), who operated in ‘grey zone’ of research institutes and state banking institutions. Coming into Czech public life in 1989-90 for essentially the same reasons as Klaus – as a well-qualified technocrat, able to devise and implement some kind of privatization and economic reform policy – Švejnar served as an an adviser and consutant to President Havel and the Czech(oslovak) government(s) but, did not (and probably did not want to) return to Czechoslovakia permanently or enter top line politics. Few, if any, (returning) emigrés were appointed to high political office. As well as advising the World Bank and international organizations, Švejnar seems to have been on and off to been a consultant to most Czech government ever since, but – despite very publicly laying into the failures of Czech privatization in 2002 – generally steered clear of partisan alignment that tripped up some leading Czech sociologists in 1990s, who generally backed the Social Democrats or the ill fated breakaway from Klaus’s Civic Democrats, the Freedom Union.

Švejnar seems in many ways excellent material to be a non-partisan technocrat or academic turned-president in the Scandivanian or Irish mould: he has economic expertise, international experience, high level political connections and fluent English. He is also a savvy choice by Klaus’s enemies (and especially by the Social Democrats, who have worked out that they cannot get a candidate of the left elected): a widely respected, but politically weak and inxperienced figure able to unite centre-left and centre-right deputies critical of Klaus (in a Czech context that includes the Greens, as well as the Christian Democrats and a plethora of small liberal groups with representation in the Czech Senate).

Whether Klaus or Švejnar takes up residence in Prague Castle in February, may to a great depend on the attitude of Christian Democrat deputies, traditionally hostile to Klaus but now in govenment with the party he founded, the Civic Democrats, and clinging to their scandal-hit leader Jiří Čuněk with grim poll ratings, and perhaps in part more inclined to stay in with the right. So far the party has refused officially to back either candidate. However, the real fly in the ointment as ever are the hardline Czech Communists. In 2003 they unexpectedly backed Klaus, dealing a shattering blow to the then Social Democrat-led coalition of then Prime Minister (now European Commissioner) Vladimír Špidla. And once again in a finely balanced contest – despite a marked reduction in representation – they still are likely kingmakers. They are not, for once, presenting a presidential candidate of their own. Who will they vote for? Will they vote at all? They seem likely to back Švejnar in the first round of voting to ensure that (by gaining a majority in the lower house) he goes through to the second round (when the rules for election change slightly – see here for a fuller explanation of the whole byzantine system) and that Klaus isn’t re-elected too easily (Klaus will easily go through as his party, which dominates the Czech Senate, will easily deliver him a majority there).

But what then? The Communists’ five conditions for the supporting a presidential candidate cut both ways: they want a non-party president (suggesting Švejnar?), but also someone who will defend Czech identity in the EU (step forward Václav Klaus). My feeling is that now the Social Democrats are led by the more robustly populist Jíří Paroubek, the temptation to make some kind of impact and dish their old arch-enemy Klaus may be too great. On the other hand, they may simply play off the two candidates against each other in a bid to extract maximum advantage. They will clearly want to continue being received by the head of state as a ‘normal’ party alongside other party (a concession offered by Klaus in 2003, it seems, who has done precisely this as President), but what else may be on offer? Will there be some back channels opened up by the Social Democrats? Experts canvassed by the ČTK news agency suggest that the Civic Democrats’ size and discipline – and ability to ‘buy’ votes as a governing party – should get Klaus through, but who knows?. It’s all turned very interesting.

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