A populist president

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A populist president

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Miloš Zeman, the former prime minister of the Czech Republic, has been elected president. He is likely to embrace relations with Europe (photo: Draceane)

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.

  1. January 29, 2013

    Benjamin Tallis

    Interesting piece which provides good background on some of the reasons why Zeman won. Obviously its impossible to say everything in 600 words, but there are a couple of points that may help advance discussion of the election. its context and significance (More on these issues at http://ceethrough.wordpress.com).

    Despite Lidovke’s pessimism, Schwarzenberg’s campaign energised and engaged young voters in Prague like no campaign that I can remember and even in the wake of defeat, many were taking genuine hope from the amount of people who had become involved with and voted for a candidate who stood for something genuinely different – for the Havelian hope that politics could be done differently. This battle may now retreat into the socio-cultural realm or may continue in the next election. Vaclav Klaus’ viciously parodic use of Havel’s ‘Truth & Love defeating Hatred & Lies’ as a description of this election was almost too sickening for words but has only further stiffened the resolve of those who oppose the lies and contempt of both Klaus and Zeman.

    That Zeman managed to appeal to dissatisfied voters was truly remarkable as the article rightly points out there seems to have been a forgetting of the Zeman-Klaus opposition agreement period from 98-2002 which was widely described as the most corrupt government in Czech history. The support he gained from Vaclav Klaus and Jan Fischer – hardly noted for their outsider status – speaks volumes in this regard, which as Schwarzenberg noted, reflects the oppositional facade which masks very cosy arrangements between many of those in the top 500,000.

    The article also correctly identifies Zeman’s cheap nationalistic-populism as a source of popularity against the principled Schwarzenberg position on the Benes decrees as human rights violations and internationally authorised ethnic cleansing. However, the very public asking of questions on this topic may yet open up a productive engagement of Czech collective memory on one of the thorniest issues in the national consciousness.

    Regarding the EU, by far CR’s most important international relationship, it is perhaps worth considering that although both Schwarzenberg and Zeman are pro EU and pro British membership, their potential effectiveness in managing this relation or convincing UK politicians or voters differs vastly. A parallel between the effectiveness of the borish Kaczynski’s and the current smooth operators of Tusk & Sikorski in Poland is indicative. Zeman has proved time and again that he will say nearly anything (lips allegedly often loosened by the Becherovka) from his recent Crocodile gaffe to his various descriptions of journalists as prostitutes, dogs and various other insults. The man cannot be trusted to represent czechs so as usual, they will get on with the business of doing it themselves and ‘not being governed like that’, to take an expression from Michel Foucault.

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Andrew Greene

Andrew Greene is an Australian journalist who speaks Czech and is currently based in Prague as a freelance writer. He covers federal politics for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation 

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