Czech Republic 2013
The second round of direct presidential elections were held in the Czech Republic on January 25-26, 2013. The President serves a five-year term, renewable once. Although often described as a ceremonial head of state, the President does have a few significant powers. The President has veto power over legislation, although the legislature can override a veto. The President also appoints judges to the Supreme and Constitutional Courts, may dissolve the Chamber of Deputies under certain circumstances and has shared authority with the Prime Minister over foreign policy, the use of the military, the appointment of lower court judges, and the granting of amnesty. Until 2012, the President was indirectly elected by members of both houses of Parliament in a convoluted process open to corruption and back-room political deals. This was the first time that Czech voters directly elected their President. I covered the first round here.
Two colourful candidates qualified for the runoff two weeks ago. Miloš Zeman, a former Social Democratic (ČSSD) Prime Minister between 1998 and 2001 who has since broken with his party, won 24.2%. Karel Schwarzenberg, a wealthy Bohemian aristocrat who is the country’s foreign minister in the centre-right government, won 23.4%.
Both candidates are colourful personalities; Zeman is noted for his sharp and often insulting wit, his populist demeanor and his controversial views on issues such as climate change or Muslims. As Prime Minister, he helped modernize the country and guided the country towards eventual EU membership in 2004. However, his confidence and supply agreement with the centre-right ODS in 1998, then led by Václav Klaus, now the outgoing President, has been controversial. Many see the deal between the two dominant parties, ČSSD and ODS, as the deal which entrenched links between big business interests and the two major parties. The country has struggled with endemic political corruption. Zeman was endorsed by Václav Klaus, the outgoing centre-right President (in office since 2003), a controversial figure known for his outspoken opposition to the European Union and his skepticism of man-made climate change. Although Zeman is supportive of European integration, he is also rather pro-Russian. His links with shady lobbyist Miroslav Šlouf (linked to the late mafia kingpin František Mrázek) and the Russian oil company, LUKoil, have raised questions about his campaign’s funding.
Karel Schwarzenberg, is a Bohemian prince, rather colourful in his own right. An urbane and sophisticated aristocrat, he is known for his sharp appearance but also his tendency to doze off during long meetings. His family fled Czechoslovakia for Austria in 1948 after the communist coup, and Schwarzenberg was active in Austrian conservative politics during the Cold War. When he returned to Prague in 1990, he became a close friend and ally of Václav Havel, the leading opponent of the communist regime who served as President between 1993 and 2003. He has served as foreign minister in the centre-right government since 2010 (and before that between 2007 and 2009). He is a leading figure in the pro-European centre-right TOP09 party.
Both candidates had pledged to run a clean campaign in the runoff, but the campaign became rather acrimonious quickly. In a TV debate on January 17, Schwarzenberg drew criticism when he said that the expulsion of Czechoslovakia’s inter-war German minority, the Sudeten Germans, after World War II would be considered a war crime today and the creators of the Beneš decrees (laws which led to the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after the war) would be tried as war criminals in The Hague. Schwarzenberg was also criticized for his long exile abroad and for the fact that his wife cannot speak Czech. President Václav Klaus, who supports Zeman, expressed concern about Schwarzenberg, pointing to his wife’s inability to speak Czech and his emigration during the communist regime.
During a TV interview, Zeman made a sexist joke in an attempt to criticize his opponent’s aristocratic roots. He said that raping female serfs had conferred an evolutionary advantage on squires (Zeman’s last name means squire/yeoman) while princes degenerated because “they did not have to rape their serfs.” Women’s groups criticized Zeman’s comment.
Zeman’s strategy was to turn the runoff into a campaign between the left (him) and the right (Schwarzenberg) and link his opponent to the unpopular right-wing government. The current government, led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas, is very unpopular because of austerity policies which have led to a double-dip recession and deeply entrenched corruption in the governing parties.
Turnout in the runoff was 59.1%, down from 61.3% in the first round.
Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) 54.8%
Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09) 45.19%
Former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman was elected President of the Czech Republic by a bit less than 10 points. The unpopularity of the current government played a large role in Schwarzenberg’s defeat. Zeman was able to turn the presidential runoff into a battle of the left versus the right, and linked Schwarzenberg to the unpopular government. Although Schwarzenberg as foreign minister is not directly linked to the austerity policies and he is one of the government’s most popular members, he could still be easily associated with Petr Nečas’ government and the unpopular austerity policies, which in good part have been spearheaded by another member of Schwarzenberg’s party (TOP09), finance minister Miroslav Kalousek.
Zeman’s campaign was very adroit at exploiting latent patriotic, anti-aristocratic and anti-German sentiments with older, rural voters. Aristocrats, especially German-speaking aristocrats like Schwarzenberg, are unpopular figures. In the nineteenth century, aristocrats and the Czech nobility did not play a major role in the rebirth of Czech nationalism and the promotion of the Czech language. More radical nationalists and the left cast the aristocracy as the enemy. Following the independence of Czechoslovakia, aristocratic titles were cancelled and their land was redistributed in a land reform in 1919. Decades of communist rule after 1948 encouraged anti-aristocratic sentiments. Similarly, many older (and rural) voters hold anti-German sentiments, dating back to the 1930s. Zeman, his opponents would contend, ran a very underhanded dirty campaign which played up nationalistic and anti-aristocratic sentiments. They were able to portray their opponent as insufficiently Czech and patriotic; and too worldly. Schwarzenberg’s comments about the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after World War II certainly did not help matters for him, neither did his own biography.
The map of the runoff reveals a major rural – urban divide, and something of a regional divide between Bohemia and Moravia/Silesia. Unsurprisingly, the map was basically a traditional left-right contest.
Schwarzenberg’s electorate, like in the first round, was urban, fairly young, middle-class/well off and white-collar. He won 66% of the vote in Prague and similar percentages in two affluent suburban districts which surround the Czech capital. Outside Prague, his support was again largely urban. He won Plzeň, Brno, Liberec and České Budějovice. He came close in the district containing Karlovy Vary, a spa city in northern Bohemia. On the other hand, Zeman’s electorate was more rural, older, blue-collar and economically deprived. There was a regional aspect in the split, Schwarzenberg performed best in central Bohemia, the old aristocratic base of the country and generally a rather well-off region. On the other hand, Zeman won by big margins in the eastern regions of Moravia, Silesia and also North Bohemia – poorer regions, some of them very industrialized. Zeman’s best result was 76% in Karviná, the heart of a coal mining basin in Silesia. He also won larger urban centres in Silesia and Moravia: Ostrava, an industrial city (65%); Olomouc (59%) and Zlín, an old industrial city (54%). Zeman also performed well in North Bohemia, usually the Communist Party’s strongest region. This is a major industrial (coal mining) region which was extensively resettled after the war (following the expulsion of Sudeten Germans) by Slovaks or Moravians. Zeman, generally, did better in rural and lower-income areas which have suffered the brunt of the government’s austerity policies.
Zeman’s victory means the replacement of one strong-willed and influential President by another similar figure; the difference between the two men is that Zeman appears more pro-European than Klaus, and unlike both of his predecessors he is ready to support a government which is supported by the Communist Party. Zeman has said that he would attend cabinet meetings and try to influence important legislation. The presidency is still a largely ceremonial function, but the direct election of the president might give the president more legitimacy to play a more active role in Czech politics. Zeman will take office in March.