Czech Republic 2013
The first round of direct presidential elections were held in the Czech Republic on January 11-12, 2013 with a runoff scheduled for January 25-26. The President serves a five-year term, renewable once. Although often described as a ceremonial head of state, in contrast to the Austrian and Hungarian presidents, the Czech 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 elected indirectly by the members of the Chamber of Deputies and Senate through a convoluted and overly complex process. This electoral process, as in 2003 and 2008, was marred by allegations of backroom deals between parties/politicians and corruption. The 2008 presidential election was quite controversial, and led to the reform of the system. Since a reform last year, the President is directly elected to serve a two-year term. Some have criticized this reform, saying that the direct election of the President would strengthen his power and weaken parliament (the country is a parliamentary republic).
Since the fall of communism and the Velvet Divorce in 1993, two very forceful and imposing personalities have held the presidency. Václav Havel, the playwright and leading opponent of the communist regime, served until 2003. Havel was widely respected at home and abroad for his work in establishing democracy in his country. He was succeeded in 2003 by Václav Klaus, who had served as Prime Minister between 1992 and 1997 and founded the ruling conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS). In contrast to the widely respected Havel, Klaus is a far more controversial figure known for his outspoken opposition to the European Union and his skepticism of man-made climate change. He took strong stances against the European Union, which often irritated his European neighbors. Klaus was critical of the Lisbon Treaty and was reluctant to sign it, although he ultimately did. In recent years, Klaus has clashed with the governing centre-right coalition, even though it is led by the ODS.
The current government is led by Prime Minister Petr Nečas (ODS). Nečas’ cabinet is patchy and has been living on the edge since April 2012. One of his junior partners, the gadfly Public Affairs (VV) party was kicked out of the coalition (but some VV deputies stayed in government, forming a new party, LIDEM). The government lacks a coherent absolute majority in the lower house.
The government has implemented stringent austerity measures, including cutting investment, public spending and raising taxes. These austerity policies decreased public demand and led to a double-dip recession. The country’s economy shrunk by around 1% in 2012. However, the country’s deficit has been getting smaller: 3.2% of the GDP in 2011, down from 5.8% of the GDP in 2009. The cabinet is dead-set on getting the deficit below the EU’s 3% limit, it has recently introduced a bill to raise the VAT by 1% and raise taxes for high earners. Austerity has been unpopular with voters, and hurt the ODS and its allies in regional and senatorial elections in October 2012. But neither the ODS nor the inept opposition ČSSD (social democrats) are popular with voters. Elected on a platform of cracking down on corruption, Nečas’ cabinet has done – more or less – the opposite. Corruption is prevalent both within the governing parties and the opposition ČSSD, and voters are disgusted by corrupt politicians and the backroom deals which dominate the unstable parliamentary politics.
In early November 2012, the government survived a backbench revolt led by six ODS MPs who disagreed with the cabinet’s decision to raise the VAT by 1%. In somewhat obscure circumstances, the government was able to convince most of the rebels to back down: two supported it, three members resigned rather than voting on the confidence motion (they were replaced by the next-in-line candidates on the ODS’ 2010 list) and one left the party. The government survived, 101-93. The government could face another confidence vote in the next few days, following Klaus’ controversial decision to pardon over 6000 prisoners and cancel all court proceedings which had been ongoing for over eight years.
Presidential candidates needed the signatures of 50,000 citizens or the support of 20 deputies or 10 Senators. There were nine candidates, including some colourful personalities. The governing ODS nominated Přemysl Sobotka, a senator and former president of the Senate. The ČSSD nominated Jiří Dienstbier Jr., also a senator and the son of a noted dissident. However, both of these candidates had a tough time appealing to many voters in a crowded field and against some colourful personalities.
The frontrunners in the campaign were Jan Fischer and Miloš Zeman. Fischer is a statistician who was head of the Czech Statistical Office until he became a caretaker Prime Minister for a year between 2009 and 2010, after Mirek Topolánek’s cabinet collapsed. Fischer was a popular and competent Prime Minister. His candidacy received the support of Prague’s business community, which is often considered a mixed blessing for Czech politicians given the close links between big business and some politicians. He was also criticized for having been a member of the Communist Party between 1981 and 1990, but like many Czechs he defended himself by saying that membership in the ruling party was the only way for apolitical civil servants and academics like him to maintain employment. Fischer’s campaign was generally pro-European and pro-business, but his campaign was fairly colourless.
In stark contrast to the mild-mannered and technocratic Fischer, Miloš Zeman is a brash and sharp-elbowed old politico who has a reputation for abrasiveness and rudeness. Zeman was the leader of the ČSSD in the 1990s and was behind the party’s rise to power. Zeman’s ČSSD won the 1998 election and he became Prime Minister, after signing an “opposition agreement” with Václav Klaus’ ODS. The ODS provided Zeman’s cabinet with confidence and supply, in return the ODS received high-profile positions in the public sector. This opposition agreement between the two major parties in the country is often viewed as the symbol for the proximity between the two parties, despite their apparent opposition to one another. Zeman served as Prime Minister until 2001. In 2003, he tried to run for President but, having alienated members of his own party, he did not do as well as expected. Zeman remained in the party, but increasingly clashed with the ČSSD’s leadership. Following a dispute with then-leader Jiří Paroubek in 2007, Zeman quit the party. Emerging from retirement in 2010, he founded his own party, the Party of Civic Rights (SPOZ). Zeman is a colourful figure, known for his sharp and often insulting wit, and his controversial views. Like Klaus, he is skeptical of man-made climate change. In 2011, Zeman commented that Islam was the ‘enemy’ and likened Muslims who believe in the Qur’an to anti-Semitic and racist Nazis. While Fischer is a very popular figure, well regarded by most voters; Zeman is a far more controversial and divisive figure. He is well liked by older voters outside of Prague, but many others dislike him. Outgoing President Václav Klaus supported Zeman.
Zeman was widely regarded to have won a final debate, and eclipsed Fischer, the original front-runner in the polls. One of the candidates who benefited from Fischer’s fall was Karel Schwarzenberg, the incumbent foreign minister and the candidate of the pro-European centre-right TOP 09. Schwarzenberg is a wealthy Bohemian prince, known for his sharp appearance. He grew up in Austria and was active in Austrian conservative politics during the Cold War, but he returned to Czechoslovakia when the regime fell and was a close friend and collaborator of Václav Havel. He was foreign minister between 2007 and 2009, nominated by the Green Party, and again since 2010. He is one of the leading founders of TOP 09.
One candidate, Vladimír Franz, attracted international attention for his unusual appearance. An artist, opera composer and university professor, Franz’s body is entirely tattooed. An outsider candidate, his vague anti-corruption and pro-education platform appealed to many younger voters who are tired of the country’s corrupt and ever-bickering ruling elites. He surged to 11% support in the last opinion poll.
Other candidates included MEP Zuzana Roithová, nominated by the KDU-ČSL; Táňa Fischerová, an actress and former MP (2002-2006) for a small pro-European liberal party; and Jana Bobošíková, a former Eurosceptic MEP.
Turnout was 61.31%, a bit below the turnout in the 2010 general election. This turnout seems a bit low, given that the campaign had apparently excited and motivated many voters, leading some to predict 70% turnout. The Communist Party (KSČM) did not nominate a candidate of its own and was split between Zeman and Dienstbier. Judging from the low turnout in the KSČM’s strongest regions, it appears as if many of its voters did not turn out. The results were as follows:
Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) 24.21%
Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09) 23.40%
Jan Fischer (Ind) 16.35%
Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (ČSSD) 16.12%
Vladimír Franz (Ind) 6.84%
Zuzana Roithová (KDU-ČSL) 4.95%
Táňa Fischerová (Ind) 3.23%
Přemysl Sobotka (ODS) 2.46%
Jana Bobošíková (Suverenita) 2.39%
As expected, former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman (SPOZ) placed first and qualified for the runoff. The surprise came from the runner-up, foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who won 23.4% and qualified for the runoff, distancing Jan Fischer, the vaguely centre-right independent who was the original front-runner and still widely expected to qualify for the runoff even if his candidacy had lost speed following the final debate.
Fischer’s support base was likely quite soft, made up in large part of urban middle-classes and pro-business centre-right voters whose early support for Fischer might have had more to do with their distaste for the polarizing Miloš Zeman. Fairly bland and colourless despite his widespread popularity with the electorate, Fischer’s support fell apart following the last debate. Many of his supporters, if my assessment of his original support is correct, preferred Karel Schwarzenberg, who had been gaining ground in the polls throughout the campaign. After all, Fischer and Schwarzenberg are fairly ideologically similar.
The other, smaller, surprise came from the ČSSD’s candidate, Jiří Dienstbier, who had been polling in the low teens for most of the campaign. He outperformed most of his polling results, taking 16.1%. I’m not sure what explains his late mini-surge in support. On the other hand, the candidate of the other traditional party – the ODS – did horribly. Přemysl Sobotka won only 2.5% of the votes! Certainly the unpopularity of the current government did not help him, and Sobotka was a largely unknown candidate in a field of heavyweights.
Vladimír Franz did not do as well as some had thought he would. His support had apparently increased to 11% in the last polls, but he came out from the first round in fifth place with only 6.8% of the vote. It should not be surprising that his potential support turned out to be quite soft. During the campaign, his pro-education and anti-corruption stance appealed to many apathetic younger voters. They probably did not turn out for him in the end.
Schwarzenberg, unsurprisingly, did best in Prague (43.2%) and its suburbs, which form his party’s traditional base (educated upper middle-classes). Broadly, his support reflected that of the right, with strong results in urban areas and in the wealthier rural areas of Bohemia. The ODS’ pathetic support was spread equally, at low levels, throughout the country. On the other hand, Zeman’s support closely reflected that of the left. He performed well in Moravia, where the ČSSD is usually stronger, and in the Ore Mountains region of Bohemia (Ústí nad Labem and Karlovy Vary regions). Somewhat surprisingly, Dienstbier’s support does not seem to have closely reflected that of his party in general elections. Certainly somebody who knows more about Czech electoral geography would be able to draw better conclusions out of the general map and each candidate’s regional support.
The runoff, two weeks from now, will oppose Zeman and Schwarzenberg – broadly speaking, the left and right (which is what Zeman is now seeking to present the runoff as). There were no runoff polls before the first round, meaning that at this early stage, we can only rely on hypotheses. Zeman is a divisive and polarizing figure, who may have a strong lingering base of support but who might have trouble winning 50+1 in a runoff election. Schwarzenberg is a less polarizing figure than Zeman, meaning that he could be in a stronger position to win in the runoff. Though I don’t know if such factors could come into play, Schwarzenberg could be perceived as having a more ‘presidential’ image than Zeman, and his foreign policy credentials as well as his ties to the late Václav Havel could come in useful. One would think that Fischer’s support will flow to Schwarzenberg while Dienstbier’s voters will prefer Zeman. Regardless of the winner, the Czech Republic will have a colourful head of state for the next five years.