In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.
A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.
As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.
But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.
But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? Read More…
Ever since Miloš Zeman won the Czech presidential elections on 26 January, analysts have been scrambling to say just what his political views actually are – especially his views on foreign policy and the EU.
Never quite as prolific a speechifier or writer as Václav Klaus, on stepping down as Prime Minister in 2002, Zeman was semi-retired for the best part of a decade, resurfacing for occasional public appearances.
His campaign programme and campaign performances offered little in the way of clear and concrete views. Indeed, they tended to highlight that he was inconsistent and liked to make policy on the hoof – saying, for example, he wanted to abolish the Czech Senate one moment, then that he wanted transform it into a Bundesrat-style chamber of the regions.
Most analysts, including me, therefore settled for the default conclusion that Zeman was basically a kind of a social democrat with a pragmatic pro-European outlook, who was cautious but not hostile towards the EU. Big change – or no change – depending on your point of view.
But delve a little more deeply and we can find plenty of Zeman views on record: two books of memoirs and various collections of interviews, including most recently Miloš Zeman – Zpověď informovaného optimisty which came out last year as a lead-in to the Zeman presidential campaign.
In conversation with right-wing journalist Petr Žantovský, who clumsily (and unsuccessfully) tries to lure Zeman into agreeing with various Václav Klaus-like opinions, Zeman sets out his actual views.
And very interesting views they are too – revealing a number of things that you probably didn’t know about the President elect. Read More…
Few observers, even a matter of weeks beforehand, would have predicted the success of the two candidates who will be contesting the second round run-off to choose the Czech Republic’s first directly elected president, which takes place on 25-26 January.
Miloš Zeman, who topped the poll in the first round on 11-12 January with 24.2 per cent, is a former Prime Minister who led the Czech Social Democratic Party between 1993 and 2001. However, he acrimoniously split with the party he once led and his return from political retirement in 2009 to lead his own Citizens’ Right Party (SPOZ) was regarded by many as a vanity project. SPOZ failed to enter parliament in the May 2010 parliamentary elections and Zeman’s presidential bid, announced in June last year, seemed set to be similarly unsuccessful.
Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic Czech foreign minister, who ran Zeman a close second with 23.4 per cent of the vote, was perhaps always a more plausible contender. A scion of the Austro-Hungarian nobility, diplomat and former chief of staff to Václav Havel, Schwarzenberg was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular politicians. The electoral success in 2010 of TOP09, the newly formed party he led, owed much to Schwarzenberg’s appeal as retro anti-politician. However, although one of the first to announce his candidacy, Schwarzenberg‘s campaign soon flagged badly, damaged by TOP09’s role in the governing centre-right coalition and unwavering commitment to austerity. At 75, Schwarzenberg was the oldest candidate and had not always appeared in robust good health. By December 2012 polls still put his support at under 10 per cent and – while I’d always fancied Zeman (politically I mean) most commentators including me had written Schwarzenberg’s challenge off. Indeed, I thought those who even mentioned him as outsider possibility were well off the mark. Read More…
The political return of former Social Democrat leader and leading presidential hopeful Miloš Zeman has been one of the more surprising emerging-from-under-the -radar phenomena in Czech politics over the past couple of years.
For most observers of Czech politics Zeman was something of a historical figure, linked with the early years of transiton and the political battles of 1990s. Having shifted the Czech Social Democrats from a minor party to one of the big players in early-mid 1990s by making them a robust party of opposition, Zeman won a notable election victory in 1998, did a deal with his erstwhile nemesis Vaclav Klaus to form a minority government and served one term as Prime Minister (1998-2002) and then retired to his cottage in the Vysočina highlands.
Retirement seems not to have suited him and still nursing political ambitions – and much to the horror of many former colleagues – he won a ‘primary’ among Social Democrat supporters to be the party’s presidential candidate in the 2003. Alas as the Czech head of state was still indirectly elected by MPs and senators at the time, enough Social Democrat parliamentarians failed to vote for him that he was humiliatingly eliminated from this contest early on (Vaclav Klaus was finally elected and then re-elected for a second term in 2008).
Zeman then finally parted company with his former party, wrote some splenetic, best-selling memoirs attacking ex-colleagues – memorably described by one academic reviewer as a ‘foul fart of a book’ – and it seemed that that was the last we would hear of him. The cigarette-smoking, beer- and becherovka drinking Zeman, known for his ponderous quotes, not very funny bonmoty and bruisingly effective political personality was set to become just another memory of 1990s.
But come 2013, if the latest and last polls are to be believed, Zeman is the front runner in the Czech Republic’s first direct presidential elections, edging ahead of one-time favourite Jan Fischer, the former prime minister in the 2009-10 technocratic caretaker government. As Klaus steps down, Zeman steps up. We seem set for Fischer-Zeman second round run-off on 25-26 January. And even if Zeman unites a huge swathe of right-wing voters behind Fischer, given the left-leaning inclination of the Czech electorate he must surely be in with a shouting chance of taking over at Prague Castle on 7 March.
How has this happened when so many other would-be comebacks and political vanity projects fail? Just think of the stillborn LEV21 party of Zeman’s one time rival and fellow semi-detached ex-Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek.
Several factors seem to have combined in Zeman’s favour:
1. He is well known
For many voters. as well as being a known quantity. Zeman’s big political personality and experience as Prime Minister makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws – the embarrassing off the cuff remarks, off jokes and occasional lack of political energy – are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.
Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement deal with Klaus, from a left-wing point of the point of view Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat. Almost the only Czech prime minister to do so (caretakers excepted).
2.He is a reasonably plausible outsider
At the same time, having been out of national politics for the best part of a decade and broken his links with the Social Democrats, Zeman can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.
His presidential run comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when the Social Democrats could no find no experienced, high profile politician to stand for head of state (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – former EU Commissioner Vladimír Špidla might have been an option). (Indeed, the Social Democrats seem rather short of big charismatic leaders generally just now. The current party leader Bohumil Sobotka is articulate and intelligent, but as someone acidly commented at a recent conference I went to comes across more as a spokesman than a leader.)
Lukewarm semi-endorsement by old rival Václav Klaus might even pull in a few voters from the right – although like Klaus such ‘naughty right-wingers’ will probably be expressing their dislike for the various centre-right and centrists candidates more than wanting to propel Zeman to office.
3. His support is well organised and well financed
Although there are questions over where Zeman’s political money comes from, with widely reported links to the Russian oil company Lukoil (denied by Zeman) and other Russian donors (not denied). Whatever the truth, the Zeman campaign has sufficient resources and organisation to be effective – and it started organising early. The Citizen’s Rights Party – Zemanites (of which Zeman is oddly only the honorary leader) was formed in October 2009 and contested the May 2010 parliamentary elections, pulling in a not negligible 4.33% – seemingly all at the expense of the Social Democrats – which was almost enough to cross the 5% threshold to enter parliament. SPOZ’s origins, in fact, go back some years earlier to the curiously named, Friends of Miloš Zeman association, run by Zeman’s former right-hand man and the ex-communist apparatchik Miroslav Šlouf.
Despite clearly having cash to splash, SPOZ – as its reasonably solid performance in the October 2012 regional elections showed – also has organisation on the ground. The collection of 50,000 signature petition to nominate Zeman was also a notably quick and efficient operation. Šlouf and various other ex-Social Democrats in SPOZ are not political amateurs.
4. He has potentially broad appeal
While disliked and dismissed on the right, Zeman is acceptable to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to the Social Democrats or with associations to Havel or the dissident movement. The Social Democrats official candidate Jirí Dienstbier jr. – son of the late dissident of the same name – has fought a shrewd campaign positioning himself a moderate, modern politician and actively solicited the support of the Communist Party (KSČM – which for once is not running its own candidate). Despite, this Dienstbier is off the pace and you wonder how many Communist voters might hold his family background against him.
Zeman is less difficult for the party and has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSČM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU – he is he says a Euro federalist but against an EU superstate (work that one out) – and demands for additional funding if he flies the EU flag at Prague Castle.
5. He has been underestimated
Finally, that most telling of political assets: Zeman has been underestimated by opponents. Despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010. He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon. Somehow despite everything, for many it is hard to believe that he could really actually win.
Despite a slow build up media scrutiny about funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little scrunitny or critical opposition in the campaign. Certainly few questions have been as to one what kind of a president he would be. Until the recent efforts of civic initiatives to boost the campaign of Foreign Minister and TOP09 leader Karel Schwarzenberg, the main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their real time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.
What kind of President would Zeman be?
His website offers only a selection of bland, somewhat fence-sitting views. His statements suggest he is still broadly on the mainstream pro-European centre-left and would be considerably less toxic to many abroad than Klaus. He was even one of only three presidential candidates to accept an invitation to a debate organised by Prague Gay Pride (two refused). On the other hand his denouncing of Islam as an ‘anti-civilization’ could have come straight from Geert Wilders.
Perhaps we will have to wait for 7 March to find out…
And no sooner do I post on Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg at Chatham House than he decides to make waves in Czech domestic politics by announcing that he will be a candidate for the Czech Presidency, when Václav Klaus steps down from second and final term in 2013.
Media are reporting – in the style of the old Klaus vs. Havel coverage – that it stems from one too many eurosceptic broadside from the current occupant of Prague Castle. I suspect, however, that Mr (I mean Prince) Schwarzenberg is far too canny to make such spur of the moment decisions and that it represents a neat, logical and fitting exit from his unlikely career as party leader: the announcement was made at the second national congress of his TOP09.
If I was a TOPák, however, I wouldn’t be that enthusiastic. Provided age treats him kindly – he will be 75 in 2013 – Schwarzenberg would, undoubtedly be a distinguished and effective head of state. But his exit as party leader would politically destabilising for TOP09, a loose alliance of local politicians, business interests and ex-Christian Democrats, which would look a whole lot less attractive with an aristocratic anti-politician at it helm. And, as the unhappy experience of Havel and Civic Movement shows, on/off presidential parties rarely prosper.
In the bigger picture, President Schwarzenberg would predictable and a safe choice, a re-assuring avuncular figure in times of trouble. But could the Czechs really not find someone younger, and conceivably perhaps – and I know this is a bit shocking – even female? Someone not part of the dissident/technocratic/business/intellectual establishment that has run the CR since 1989? Is there a Czech Mary Robinson in the wings?
It’s interesting that, despite being a media darling, Schwarzenberg’s popular rating with the voters is a mere 14%. In a direct election, legislation for which is chugging along uncertainly, he could quickly become an also-ran.
Knowing Czech politics, though – and if it were to be a direct election – it could easily be a Czech Sarah Palin. Of the establishment candidates mentioned here Přemysl Sobotka, the moderate and independent long-time Civic Democrat Senator, and ex-caretaker PM Jan Fischer would safe, if boring choices. Personally, if we’re doing grey ‘n’ technocratic I would go for ex-Social Democrat PM and former EU Social Affairs Commissioner Vladmir Špidla, whose rather grey public persona belies a more interesting and colourful figure. Špidla I have always felt, is one most under-rated figure in Czech politics.
Two other former Social Democrat PMs, Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek – both populist bruisers of the first order – can also be assumed to have presidential ambitions. Either would be a potentially credible candidate in a popular election capable of pulling in Communist voters any directly elected left-wing president would need, but have too many parliamentary enemies to make it through the current indirect system where only deputies and Senators vote.
Paroubek, however, seems to be more concerned with building up his new LEV21 party and is on the record as urging one-time rival Zeman to run for head of state (probably hoping to hoover up voters and activists from Zeman’s own small vanity party SPOZ party, which pulled in an expected 4% in last year’s elections.