>Czech presidential debate: dull but informative

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I finally get to watch the Czech Presidential debate between incumbent Václav Klaus and challenger Jan Švejnar courtesy of the the Czech Television website held two days (starts with a 20 second commercial for Czech TV, but stay tuned). Candidates will get to make a formal address to the joint session of the Czech parliament that elects the Czech Head of State in February, but this head-to-head between presidential candidates is is a first the Czech Republic- and it’s a rather odd affair, held not in a TV studio or a public forum, but in a historic committee room as a special sitting of the Social Democrat faction in the Senate but with TV camera in attendance. Social Democrat Senators are thus the only ones to ask questions of two distinctly liberal, pro-market economists. Both candidates make opening statements. Klaus gives his usual confident, hard-edged professional pitch, but later gets a little rattled when he thinks that Švejnar will get answer questions second and be able to critique his answers. They agree to take turns Klaus then tries to lighten the atmosphere with a dose of his usual brand of self-satisfied public bonhomie. The ensuing exchanges are, however, dull but still quite informative.

Klaus argues that he is politically experienced; has had his differences with the Social Democrats (something of an understatement if we take his rhetoric of the 1990s seriously, perhaps we shouldn’t) but believes in ‘social feeling’ (sociální cítění) – the Czech term for some kind of commitment to welfare; he will not make the Presidency an alternative power centre or substitute it for parties (like Václav Havel did, we are supposed to understand). Švejnar begins nervously and speaks too quickly. At first he sounds like he is at attending job interview, rather than presenting a manifestion for political office, but he gets into his strides later on. He is, he says, genuinely independent and his inexperience is an advanage – he represents changes and address the discontent many Czechs feels; has experience of the policy world both abroad and in the CR; and understands the economic challenges of globalization.

The good Senators then pose a series of questions, centring – as one might expect – on social and economic issues. The mistakes of privatization in the 1990s? Irrelelvant to current politics, perhaps inevitable in the circumstances and no worse than elsewhere says Klaus. Much worse than elsewhere says Švejnar with some authority. Charges for visiting the doctor? A good thing they both agree? Civil society? They both believe it in – Klaus claims he has been misrepresented and only opposed NGO encroachment into policymaking. Indeed, he has founded his own foudation and doesn’t (plan to) sit on the boards of any companies (a dig at Švejnar, I think); the EU and the Euro. Qualified enthusiasm from Klaus. Vital to engage with says Švejnar to meet the challenges of globalization. Flat tax? Nothing to get excited about says Klaus, it varies and there are always exceptions and allowances. Not desirable in a developed country says Švejnar due to to the inequality it promotes: containment of social inequality and social cohesion are needed to maintain national competitiveness. Climate change? You know my views says Klaus, trying to laugh off the question, very serious problem says Švejnar – should be a priority. Klaus, by contrast, want extra resources channelled to cutting taxes. The last two responses – and the clear difference on the EU – should deliver all the Social Democrats votes to Švejnar if these were ever in doubt. Klaus does, however, win in the satorial stakes – he has a much better suit and a far more striking tie than Prof Švejnar say Czech TV viewers polled afterwards, but think Švejnar won on points. I agree.

Meanwhile, the Communists seems set once again to playkingers – and/or extract concessions from one or other candidate. They will back Švejnar in the first round of voting to ensure he isn’t eliminated, as he would be if he didn’t top the ballot in at least one chamber of parliament. (To win in the first round a candidate would need a majority in each chamber of parliament, which is nigh on impossible). However, then seem set on ensuring that neither candidate is elected in the second and third rounds (which just require majorities of those parliamentarians attending) by abstaining. There would then have to be a second election (up to three more rounds of voting) – as happened in 2003 – when the Communists would quixotically field their own candidate. Perhaps the next televised presidnetial debate will be with Communist parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, the OpenDemocracy virtual political futures market on the Czech presidential election has Klaus’s stock fairly high (61% chance of re-election traders reckon), but falling. About right I think.

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