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. 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…
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.
I’m sitting listening to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. I look up occasionally at the map on the wall and wonder what projection it is. Europe seems big and fat compared to the more politically correct/geographically accurate cartography I usually see.
But that’s kind of appropriate. Schwarzenberg is, after all, speaking to me – and the rest of a Chatham House lunchtime audience –on the record about the role of smaller EU member sin the post-Lisbon Treaty.
It’s interesting to see Schwarzenberg in person. Presentationally, he conforms to the media stereotype of distracted aristocratic anti-politician: he looks tired, sports a crumpled-looking bow tie and speaks at an ambling conversational pace with an unplaceable Central European accent.
I’ve never bought into all the noblesse oblige hype surrounding Prince Schwarzenberg whose TOP09 party is one of the mainstays of the Czech Republic’s centre-right government and may yet become the dominant force on the Czech right. But a couple of minutes listening quickly highlights that he has the state of the EU and European politics carefully and subtly thought through.
The small state angle is a classic Czech motif dating back to Masaryk and beyond, (although as chair William Wallace dry comments the Czech Republic is one of the ‘bigger small countries’ in the Union) but Schwarzenberg uses it to good effect.
Although it had always had a few small members, until the 2004, he argues, the EU had always functioned – and actually functioned quite well – as a big nations’ club. Eastern enlargement had changed all that bring in an influx small new CEE states, most of which lacked the economic wherewithal to join the Euro.
Paradoxically, however, expansion to 27 upped the power of bigger states, who gained from drive to create more workable decision-making structures, which resulted in the Lisbon Treaty.
The need for speedy action in current crisis had upped the power of bigger over small states. Indeed, in some sense the euro crisis had made EU governance a tandem of two big states – read France and Germany. (This, Schwarzenberg noted was kind of appropriate given that Maastricht and the Euro were essentially a Franco-German political compromise intended to anchor and clip the wings of a re-united post-Cold War Germany – the contradiction of introducing a common currency without adequate economic governance had been left unaddressed, setting up the current crisis.
Big states bossing it might be an effective (and necessary) way of running things post-crisis– and the EU had never exactly been run democratically since its foundation – But a big state-driven EU was aggravating an already acute trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, opening up the democratic deficit (although he didn’t use the term – I have ‘citizenship gap’ in my notebook).
Moreover, the distinct politics of the Euro crisis management being decided by the 17 Eurozone members, splitting the Union into two bloc: although no one had an interest in Euro meltdown, on certain issues the 17 might act as a bloc against the other ten members. As the 17 were likely to adopt steps towards further political/economic governance integration, a two-speed Europe was opening up. As on a motorway, those moving slowly and gradually falling behind might, he suggest, be tempted to turn off at the nearest exit.
So small states needed some new channels to participate (I presume both in their own interests and for the sake of EU legitimacy, although this didn’t get mentioned). But what channels? One would be to operate in flexible informal blocs. Visegrad (despite having one Eurozone state and three non-Euro states) worked well did similar Nordic, Benelux and Baltic groupings. Another was to be useful and effective especially in niche role: the Czech Republic’s special mission was to be a promoter in human rights – its diplomats had been active over Burma, Cuba. Eastern partnership and the Western Balkans (‘a powder keg’) were also spaces to watch.
Rather refreshingly Schwarzenberg offered to grand vision or or clear blueprint offered for EU reform. Just the thought – in response to a question from the Swiss ambassador – that the Union had in the fullness time to find itself way to a Swiss style arrangement, but with member states retaining the trapping of traditional statehood (like national armies) for the sake of legitimacy and as part of a system of checks and balance. Democracy mattered less than balance.
The Q and A also tracked back to the question of a dual EU with discussion of an inner (Euro-)zone and outer core of members with roughly Danish level of integration. Intriguingly, we didn’t get to hear where the thought the Czech Republic should or would end up, although geography and economics ruled out British style debates about more extensive disengagement.
Overall, it was surprisingly sceptical take for a politician associated with the liberal ex-dissident europhile centre of Czech politics. Indeed, in its basic diagnosis, it didn’t seem that far removed from some of views you could hear Václav Klaus express, at least in his more cautious days in 1990s.
Still, I guess we’re all eurosceptics now.
Slovakia, in case you wondered, was not mentioned once.