Schwarzenberg vs Zeman
Sunday, 13 January 2013 18:20

TWO elder statesmen will face off in the race to succeed Václav Klaus, the Eurosceptic president, in a shift that is likely to make the country much more pro-European, at least rhetorically.

Miloš Zeman, a former prime minister, narrowly outpaced Karel Schwarzenberg, the foreign minister, during the first round of voting that concluded January 12th, each gathering 24.2% and 23.4% of the vote respectively. (Disclosure: a close relative of Mr Schwarzenberg edits Eastern Approaches.) A runoff on January 25th and 26th will decide the winner. While Mr Zeman largely met expectations from pre-election polling, Mr Schwarzenberg more than doubled his anticipated share in what was the first direct presidential election in the history of the country. Some 61.3 % of voters cast ballots after a constitutional change earlier this year did away with a formerly convoluted parliamentary process that was rife with backroom dealing. The head of state has limited powers, but is influential in driving public opinion and appoints members of the Constitutional Court, among other tasks. 

Voting patterns were sharply divided geographically and socio-economically, with the left-leaning populist Mr Zeman dominating the eastern part of the country, Moravia, as well as the economically distressed North Bohemian region. Mr Schwarzenberg, an irreverent conservative, held sway in a central swath of the country, trending towards urban and wealthy, as well as from ballots cast by Czech citizens living abroad.

The pair appeared together today on the weekly Sunday morning talk show, “Questions with Václav Moravec,” the country’s most important outlet for political discussion. Mr Schwarzenberg characterized Mr Zeman as a “heavyweight of Czech politics,” before saying his “political views come from the past.” Meanwhile, Mr Zeman characterised his opponent as a “politician of the present,” in an attempt to connect him to economic stagnation and associated austerity policies.

Mr Zeman, 68, is a former prime minister who transformed a foundering Social Democratic party into a legitimate rival to Mr Klaus and his right-leaning Civic Democrats. The 1998 grand coalition pact between Mr Zeman and Mr Klaus is widely perceived as institutionalising nefarious ties between powerful business interests and the country’s two biggest political parties. Despite their ideological differences Mr Klaus is supporting Mr Zeman’s candidacy, a dynamic that reinforces scepticism surrounding both men among some voters.

In contrast, the 75-year-old Mr Schwarzenberg is a literal prince from the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s old ruling class. Fond of bow-ties and hardly ever without his trusty smoking pipe, he was raised in Austria as his family fled Czechoslovakia following communist takeover. In exile, he was a prominent campaigner against the Communist regime. He was from 1984-1991 the chairman of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. After the Velvet Revolution he returned to Prague to work with Václav Havel, the former president, who regularly sparred with Mr Klaus, the current president, in particular over the country’s approach to the European Union. 

The onetime favourite, Jan Fischer, a former prime minister, finished third with 16.4%, bleeding support during the campaign’s final weeks. Among the most egregious attacks on his candidacy, was a billboard campaign cartoonishly depicting Mr Fischer, a member of the Communist Party between 1980-1989, dressed in the uniform of the People’s Militia, a volunteer organization that was meant to defend against counter-revolutionaries. The billboard facetiously asked if Mr. Fischer’s Communist ties were not deeper than he portrayed: “He was in the [Communist Party], but not part of the People’s Militia!?!”

Some analysts have speculated that Mr Fischer launched his campaign too early and thus ran out of steam by the time voters took to the polls. Meanwhile, Mr Schwarzenberg was a non-factor for months before coming on in the final weeks and likely taking votes from Mr Fischer. The urbane, easygoing foreign minister was the favoured candidate of hipster urbanites and his campaign included t-shirts and pins depicting him with a pink Mohawk haircut and the phrase “Karel for President” – in English. His rally on January 10th and concert in a square that marks the border between Prague’s upscale Vinohrady and gentrifying Žižkov neighbourhoods drew thousands of people.

Mr Schwarzenberg will have to broaden his appeal in the second round in order to defeat Mr Zeman, though he can likely count on the support of the bulk of the 16.4% of people, including business elites, who backed Mr Fischer. Social Democrat Senator Jiří Dienstbier Jr., with 16.1%, was the only other candidate to surpass 7%, and his left-leaning supporters could shift Mr Zeman’s way. If the first round contest is any indication, naming a frontrunner based on opinion polls seems futile.

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