Want to know the name of the man who will determine the future direction of Czech politics? I’ll tell you. It’s His Serene Highness Prince Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena von Schwarzenberg. That’s Karel Schwarzenberg to you, me and the Czech elecorate. Mr Schwarzenberg (as I shall call him) is the widely respected and popular Czech independent of aristocratic descent and Swiss-Austrian-Czech background, who is heads the newest party on Czech political scene: TOP09. That might sound like some kind of trade fair but the acronym, in fact, stands for Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity a slogan vaguely reminiscent of Vichy France, so understandably they are sticking with the corny but safe TOP09.
That lack of class perhaps gives the game away. The party is not really Mr Schwarzenberg’s creation, but that of one time Christian Democrat leader and smooth political operator Miroslav Kalousek. Mr Kalousek quit the KDU-ČSL when its scandal hit leader Jiří Čunek finally stepped down to be replaced by older stager and former Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda. Mr Svoboda is – at least compared to Mr Čunek – squeakly clean and comes without any of the scandals concerning money in brown envelopes, derailed criminal investigation or populist outbursts about Roma that marked his predecessor inglorious stint at the top of Czech politics. Still, he’s not good enough for Mr Kalousek and sundry other heavyweights Christian Democrats because of his obvious inclination to work with the Social Democrats. Kalousek et al are rather more market-oriented and much prefer the right: Mr K was the driving force being some pretty detailed and well thought ideas in the Christian Democrats’ 2006 election programme, although he did rather blot his copybook but suddenly deciding that he would break the political impasse after the election by entering a coalition with… the Social Democrats with the tacit parliamentary support of…. the Communists. Kalousek was ousted by an internal rebellion for his pains.
Not the best recommendation for the leader of new centre-right party. Enter Mr Schwarzenberg. Having managed the family estates and supported Czech dissidents in exemplory fashion under communism, served as an advisor to Václav Havel and been elected to the Czech Senate as independent in 2004, Mr S. was propelled into top rank politics when the Greens screwed huge concessions from the Civic Democrats in 2007 to claim the post of Foreign Minister and then played a trump card by choosing the experienced, capable and mutli-lingual Schwarzenberg as Czech Foreign Minister. By all accounts, he did a decent job batting on a very sticky wicket as the Czech EU Presidency – and ultimately the government – slowly fell apart.
Now, however, he has, as he himself observed, staked all his political capital on one spin of the political wheel. TOP09 has a bland but broadly right-of-centre programme, which all about clean and straightfoward politics and getting things done and balancing market forces and social resposibility. And, of course, it’s Europhile and Atlanticist. Anyone with a long enough memory will be distinctly reminded of the programme of the now defunct Freedom Union, which broke away from ODS with much hullabaloo in 2008. The early indications for TOP09 – despite being well financed (14 million crowns in donations from businesspeople and wealthy supporters – one of 11 million), having linked up with movement of local independent mayors and, at last, got a new party logo – look less promising. The party has recorded poll preferences of 2% and 3.5%, which suggest a less than stunning entry onto the Czech political stage (if any) in October’s early elections.
On the other hand, the party might just be poised for a late and effective pre-election surge: the Freedom Union, you will remember peaked too early in the polls before the 1998 elections and never really recovered. Perhaps TOP09 will match the Czech Greens’ rather better timed picking up of momentum in 2006. And, of course, in Mr Schwarzenberg they’ve got a fascinating political figure. And, you will remember, exiled aristos turned political independents do have a certain political track record in the region. Bulgaria’s exiled king Simeon II stormed to political success and turned the Bulgarian party system upside down in 2001 (his former bodyguard’s party GERB has now just repeated the trick) and, more recently, the Hungarian Democratic Forum saved itself from political death by fielding Prince George Habsburg, grandson of Hungary’s last king and former head of the Hungarian Red Cross, as the number 2 on its European elections list last June.
This seems reflects a rather interesting mix of anti-political perception of remnants of Central European aristocracy as special breed of charismatic and cultured technocrats, who can step down into the grim and graft of the political arena, work a little stardust and provide honest and non-partisan solutions no-one else could manage: their education and polish, so it is said, makes them confident movers and shakers, their cosmopolitan background chimes with ideals of an integrated and united Europe, and their long-settled family wealth makes them impervious to the blandishments of corruptin – after all, why take a bribs when you own large chunks of Switzterland.
I’m not sure if I entirely like this buy this argument, which seems to be just a snobbish veneer applied to what is really an form of anti-political populism. For my money Mr Svoboda was just as a good a Foreign Minister as Mr Schwarzenberg. But it’s certainly true that Mr Schwarzenberg and TOP09 – if they can somehow gain the Czech equivalent of Big Mo over the summer – may be the last best hope for the Czech centre-right. On most other scenario, no matter how well the Civic Democrats do – and they are currently ahead in the polls – they will as in 2006 have no allies strong enough to build a parliamentary majority. And that leaves us looking at either a minority Social Democrat(-led) government helped into power by the Communists, or some kind of ill tempered Grand Coalition between Civic and Social Democrats.