Czech Republic: January 2013 Presidential Election
Report By: Hannah Lidicker
After two rounds of voting in January of 2013, the Czech Republic elected former Prime Minister Milos Zeman as President in the first direct presidential elections in Czech history.
This election was characterized by staggering differences between the two main candidates, and often very negativistic campaigning. Milos Zeman, a former communist party and current social democratic party member and the conservative Karel Schwarzenberg faced off on a number of major issues.
Some major issues in this election were European integration, ties with Russia, austerity measures, and the nation’s slow recovery from the economic crisis.
After two rounds of voting in the Czech Republic on January 12th and 25th-26th, former Prime Minister Milos Zeman emerged victorious, beating a number of influential candidates. In the early stages of the campaigns, it was widely believed that former caretaker Prime Minister Jan Fischer would be a frontrunner in the election and that his campaign as an independent, non-partisan candidate would be overwhelmingly successful due to his popularity as head of the temporary government in 2009-2010. In the months directly before the election, however, Zeman’s most notable competition was Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg. The first round of elections ended with Zeman receiving 24.2% of the total vote, and Schwarzenberg receiving 23.4% and Fischer only receiving about 16%, eliminating him from the second round of voting. Schwarzenberg lost in the second round with 45% to Zeman’s 55% of the vote. Zeman alas was sworn in as President on March 8, 2013.
The results of the election were split geographically, with ex-communist party member and current leftist and populist Milos Zeman winning most of the votes in the Eastern parts of the country like Moravia and in the poorer parts of the nation like the North Bohemian regions. Schwarzenberg won most of the votes from the urban youth and wealthier Czech citizens, as well as from the majority of Czechs living abroad.
This election period was characterized by the staggering personality and political differences between Zeman and Schwarzenberg. According to BBC news, “Milos Zeman is a hard-drinking, chain-smoking politician, known for his witty put-downs of his political opponents” and “Karel Schwarzenberg is a titled prince, 75 years of age but wildly popular amongst young, urban voters”. Schwarzenberg is typically described as gentlemanly and is rarely seen without a pipe and a bow-tie. Yet, his political campaign included buttons, t-shirts and other merchandise depicting the Prince and foreign minister with a pink, Mohawk hairstyle and the slogan “Karel for President”, written in English, clearly a campaign intended to appeal to the educated urban youth.
It is also important to point out that for the Czech Republic this Presidential election is of historic importance, as it is the first direct Presidential election in Czech history. Previously, the President was elected by means of a Parliamentary vote, a practice widely thought to have led to some private deal making within the nation’s political circles. Some experts suggest that because of the unprecedented direct nature of this election newly elected President Zeman will have more influence than previous Czech presidents. The Czech Presidency is typically a position with limited day-to-day power. However, the President does appoint the Prime Minister, has some veto power and as an important figurehead for Czech politics overall has a large amount of influence on public opinion and satisfaction within the nation.
Due to Zeman’s victory, the Czech Republic is expected to reorient many of its policies towards further EU integration. Although Schwarzenberg was not considered an opponent of EU integration, Zeman’s proposed policies are seen as more of a diversion from former President Vaclav Klaus’ pattern of Euroskepticism, which many analysts believe isolated the Czech Republic from the EU. However, despite being very pro-European, Zeman has some ties with Russia. Nonetheless, the end of Zeman’s campaign was dominated by bitter accusations that Schwarzenberg did not represent true Czech interests and allegations were made regarding his national loyalty due to the fact that Schwarzenberg’s family fled the Czech Republic during the communist coup and spent many years in Austria, not returning until 1989. Some analysts have even called Zeman’s campaign nationalistic and xenophobic due to its emphasis on Schwarzenberg’s time spent out of the country. Former President Klaus even commented on this debate, stating he would prefer a President who had spent the majority of his life in the Czech Republic.
One of the most surprising elements of this election was former President Klaus’ expressed support for Milos Zeman, despite their being on opposite sides of the political spectrum. However, Zeman and Klaus do have a history together. When Zeman was Prime Minister in the late 1990s the pair was responsible for establishing a successful coalition between the leftist and center-right parties. They also both have ties to Russian companies and policy platforms based on economics, rather than stringent value systems. Nonetheless, Zeman criticized former President Vaclav Klaus for his anti-EU policies, accusing him of favoring foreign interests and isolating the Czech Republic from the EU. Whether or not to integrate with the EU was a major issue in this election, and it is clear that the majority of Czech citizens favor expanding ties with the EU.
Another key issue in the election was that of the European financial crisis and subsequent attempts at recovery. Zeman criticized Schwarzenberg throughout the campaign for his support of austerity measures and tax increases, and it is widely believed that a huge faction of Zeman’s support came from the country’s poorer regions, where people would have been the most tired of the previous government’s austerity policies. Schwarzenberg’s reactions to the results of the election were negative. Although he graciously conceded after the voting, he later referred to the campaign and election as, “won by lies” and noted that “it is impossible to defend against certain type of bad mouthing”.
Since parliamentary elections are not due until June, 2014, the current center-right coalition government (in which Schwarzenberg remains a Deputy Prime Minister) continues in office. Both the economic situation and the political dynamics could change significantly in the interim.