2013 Czech Presidential Election Post-Election Report: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and a Slice of Something Blue

Continuing our series of election reports, we present the following post-election report from the 2013 Czech presidential election from political scientists Tim Haughton, Reader in European Politics at the University of Birmingham, and Tereza Novotna a GR:EEN post-doc fellow in the Institute for European Studies at Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels.

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It was perhaps appropriate that twenty years after Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Divorce the 2013 Czech presidential elections should offer something old, something new, something borrowed and a slice of something blue.

The two round election was the first time Czech citizens had been accorded the opportunity to elect directly their head of state. Previous presidents had been elected by parliament, a process which in the case of the current incumbent Vaclav Klaus had involved dodgy deals and eyebrow-raising alliances.

Milos Zeman, who defeated Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round of the election with a comfortable majority (55%-45%), was labeled by his opponent as a ‘man of the past’. Zeman, a former Prime Minister whose government was largely responsible for ensuring Czech accession to the European Union and under whose leadership the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD) was transformed into one of the country’s two main parties, had largely retired from politics after a failed bid for the presidency in 2003, although disputes with the then leader of CSSD had provoked him into forming a new left-leaning party in time for the 2010 elections. Zeman was quick to respond to Schwarzenberg’s jibe, by describing the current Foreign Minister and leader of the second largest party in the coalition as a ‘man of the present’; thereby associating him with the government’s unpopular austerity policies.

Schwarzenberg had not been expected to reach the second round. Polls had predicted Zeman would face another former Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, in the run-off, but on a dramatic election night, it was clear his support had fallen away. Much international attention had been focused on Vladimir Franz – an artist who is tattooed from head to toe – but whilst he and other non-party candidates scooped a significant chunk of the votes (the candidates proposed by the two main parties of the past two decades mustered a mere 18% between them), it was Schwarzenberg who was the beneficiary of a late surge.

Schwarzenberg’s success offered two paradoxes. Firstly, new media, especially facebook, appeared to play a decisive role in propelling a man born in 1937 into the second round. Schwarzenberg, for whom the adjective avuncular seemed invented, has an almost cult-like status amongst the young, urban Czechs who formed the bedrock of his support. He was even depicted with a punk hairstyle in some campaign material. Secondly, an aristocrat, Karel Prince of Schwarzenberg, appeared to stand an excellent chance of becoming the first directly elected Czech president.

But it was Zeman who triumphed. His victory owed much to his left-of-centre appeal, effective old-style campaigning, his criticisms of the current rightist government’s austerity measures and a belief that he would actually seek to use the position of president to make a difference. In contrast Schwarzenberg, who had often complained about the Eurosceptic stances of the government of which he is foreign minister, is a man who tends to talk the talk (and makes people laugh), but appears to exert very little influence over government policy. Nonetheless, supporters of Schwarzenberg were keen to emphasize both the largely ceremonial functions of the Czech presidency and the proximity of some shady characters to Milos Zeman. Supporters of Zeman, however, were quick to respond by reminding voters that whilst Schwarzenberg may be personally beyond reproach, his party colleague Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek is a man with a murky past.

Zeman’s victory was aided in part by a slice of the “blue” vote belonging to the main governing party, the centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS). Polls suggested nearly 12% of ODS voters backed the former social democratic leader rather than the self-declared conservative Karel Schwarzenberg. Whilst some ODS figures blamed this on a belief that the foreign minister was not right-wing enough, the real reason may lie with Vaclav Klaus, the erstwhile leader and founder of ODS. The current president not only endorsed Zeman, but shaped the debate in the period between the first and second rounds.

Borrowing tactics which had served him well in the past Klaus played the national card. In a clear dig at Schwarzenberg, whose family had left Czechoslovakia when the Communists took power and who has spent the bulk of his life in Austria, Klaus remarked he wanted the next president to be someone who had lived all of his life in the Czech lands. Other members of his family chipped in. Klaus’s wife expressed a preference for a first lady who can speak Czech (Schwarzenberg’s Austrian wife does not) and Klaus’s son claimed Schwarzenberg’s father was a member of a fascist organization. Seeing the advantages of the national card and taking a leaf out of Klaus’s book, some supporters of Zeman touched a sensitive spot for Czech voters by invoking the post-war Benes decrees which led to ethnic Germans leaving Czechoslovakia after 1945. During a TV debate Schwarzenberg’s stumbling answer to a question on the Benes decrees suggested he might be supportive of the expelled Germans and their descendants getting back confiscated property.

These elections mark the end of a quarter century in which Klaus has played a prominent role in Czech politics (as finance minister, prime minister, speaker of parliament and president). Klaus once viewed Zeman as his nemesis, but he knows the incoming president is a man with a pragmatic streak with whom he has and can strike deals. Klaus may hope he will be able to continue to exert influence without the benefit of office.

Speculation is now rife over what Zeman’s elevation to the presidency will mean. Two predictions, however, look like safe bets: he will be less Eurosceptic than his predecessor (his election was welcomed in Brussels) and he will make life difficult for the governing coalition. He has already called for early elections.

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