The Czech Republic has a new president—and he’s a chain-smoking ex-communist. Miloš Zeman, who was prime minister between 1998 and 2002, won the country’s first direct presidential election since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. He will take over from Václav Klaus, who has occupied Prague Castle since 2003. “As the president elected in a direct vote, I promise to try and be the president of all citizens,” the 68-year-old declared on Saturday as jubilant supporters chanted “long live Zeman” at a Prague hotel.
The brash, silver-haired politician triumphed by winning the support of mainly poorer and rural voters, while Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg managed only to clinch urban areas and isolated pockets in the north and south. The leftist candidate defeated his conservative opponent with a negative campaign that stressed the question of Czech ethnic national interests. This succeeded: many voters say they chose Zeman partly because he is a native Czech who does not “suck up” to the Germans.
Schwarzenberg, a 75-year-old aristocrat who heads the TOP09 party in the ruling coalition, suffered in comparison. His campaign experienced a serious setback when he suggested the Czech violence against Sudeten Germans after the second world war would today be “condemned as gross violation of human rights.” His opponent exploited the comments, accusing Schwarzenberg of “speaking like a Sudeten German, not like a president.” This was an effective insult as Schwarzenberg, whose family fled Czechoslovakia after the communist coup in 1948, is regularly lampooned for his accent and his often archaic use of the Czech language.
Schwarzenberg was also unable to distance himself from the corruption scandals that have tainted the reputation of the current government. Zeman was fortunate that, after a decade of semi-retirement, many voters seem to have forgotten about his own scandals when he was last in office.
As an economist Zeman came to prominence in Czechoslovakia just before the fall of communism after he spoke out against the communist command economy. He had joined the Communist Party in 1968 during the short-lived Prague Spring but he was expelled two years later and dismissed from his job as an economics professor. After the Velvet Revolution Zeman joined the left-leaning Social Democratic party, becoming leader in 1993 and transforming it into one of the country’s leading political forces. Five years later he formed a minority government that was largely responsible for the talks that led to the Czech Republic joining the EU in 2004.
The Czech presidency is mainly a ceremonial role but President Zeman is expected to again embrace relations with Europe, which were sidelined by Klaus, a fierce Eurosceptic. Tomáš Sedlácek, an eminent economist and former advisor to the Czech Republic’s first president Václav Havel, believes the new president can also help convince Britain to remain in the EU fold. “This is not a one-night stand; European integration is a marriage for good and for bad,” he says. “It would be a tremendous mistake to start dismantling something that we’ve been building for 50 years.”
When Zeman is sworn into office as the Czech Republic’s third president on 8th March he has promised to govern for the “bottom 10 million” and believes that as a directly elected head of state he enjoys the right to criticise the government. He will push for more public investment to fight the economic crisis, and in doing so has tapped into the public discontent with the current administration of Petr Necas, whose government is deeply unpopular following tough austerity measures. As the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny put it, “the candidate of the dissatisfied voters” won in “an atmosphere of disgust and fear of the future.” In a country still mired in recession and deeply sceptical of its politicians, Zeman will struggle to stay on the right side of that disgust.