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The Czech Election Paradox

The victory of former Prime Minister Milos Zeman over Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in the Czech presidential election will leave deep trenches in Czech politics. Both camps used strong rhetoric against each other, and Zeman in particular resorted to some low blows. The unpleasant aftertaste from his insidious attacks on Schwarzenberg’s supposed lack of “Czechness” and his demagoguery with regard to the so-called Benes decrees, under which some 3 million Sudeten Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II, present a major obstacle to Schwarzenberg’s supporters accepting Zeman as their president.

Zeman and other politicians talk about the need to leave the battlefield behind, but they seem to underestimate the depth of the trenches, and their number. Zeman fought his campaign not only along the left-right axis, portraying himself as a leftist opponent of the highly unpopular center-right government, but also from nationalistic positions, exploiting various traumas of Czech history. Here he found himself in the same camp as the conservative departing President Vaclav Klaus, the Communists, and some xenophobic fringe groups.

 Zeman relied less on a leftist critique of Schwarzenberg – literally the prince of an aristocratic family who lived in Austria during the communist era and now serves as deputy prime minister – and more on an appeal to nationalistic provincialism. His victory is not necessarily an ideological one, nor one that even bodes particularly well for the left. It will probably cause problems for the Czech Social Democrats, whom he formerly led. While Zeman insists he will not interfere with developments in his old party, his ascension to the presidency will clearly bolster his still-numerous followers there. The Social Democrats, therefore, will likely experience strong internal conflicts.

If those conflicts come to pass, and with the conservative Civic Democrats now in crisis, there is a clear risk that Zeman’s election will upend the relatively stable arrangement under which Czech politics has for many years been anchored firmly by the two large parties, one on the right, the other on the left.

 Moreover, any weakening of the Social Democrats will result in the strengthening of the Communist Party. The Communists wisely opted not to nominate their own presidential candidate, sparing themselves from having to explain to their followers and the public in general why their candidate did not make into the second round.

 In the runoff, the Communists wholeheartedly embraced Zeman as the only leftist candidate. They further benefited from the fact that Schwarzenberg was Zeman’s opponent; anti-German stances, a staunch defense of the Benes decrees, and criticism of both former émigrés and aristocrats have long been hallmarks Czech Communist politics. It is clear that Schwarzenberg’s supposed lack of  “Czechness” struck a chord with the unreconstructed party’s voters.

 The Communists also greatly benefited from the fact that Social Democratic voters did not unanimously support their party’s candidate, Jiri Dienstbier, in the first round, with many preferring Zeman instead. Since Dienstbier did not make it into the second round, the Communists did not have to face the potentially divisive issue of which of the two leftist candidates to support.

 Overall, the result of the presidential election will benefit the Communist Party more than any other party. It is the third time in a row that the Communists have decisively influenced the outcome of the presidential race, its votes having helped Klaus get elected by parliament in 2003 and 2008.

 Another potential problem for Czech politics is the fact that Zeman promises to be an active president. He wants to use even those presidential powers that neither Klaus nor Vaclav Havel before him exercised much, such as visiting government meetings and frequently addressing both chambers of parliament. His interference with the work of the government, in particular, will almost certainly create conflicts: within hours of becoming president he called for early elections, given the center-right government’s deep unpopularity. Prime Minister Petr Necas called Zeman’s remarks “irrelevant,” but we should expect to see more such meddling.

 Conflicts can also be expected between President Zeman and his vanquished opponent, who remains the foreign minister. The constitution gives the president strong but poorly defined powers in foreign policy. Klaus managed to use that vagueness to pursue his own foreign policy agenda, creating conflicts with successive Czech governments.

 If Zeman decides to test the this government’s willingness to put up with his foreign policy activism, a major conflict may emerge, especially as lingering animosities from the presidential campaign could easily spill into their relations president and foreign minister.

 Yet another problem on the horizon is unmet expectations. Polls indicate many people voted for Zeman because they believe him to be a strong leader who will use his authority to put things in order in the country.

 Zeman’s own campaign billboard message – “Vote for Zeman, stop the government!” – was misleading, as the president has no constitutional powers to upset the government provided it fails no vote of confidence. Moreover, many voters who used to support the government but have become disenchanted may rally behind it if Zeman puts too much pressure on it. If nothing else, they are not likely to want to ally themselves with the many center-left voters who now view Zeman as their champion.

 But while many are disappointed with the result of the country’s first direct presidential election, saying it has opened the floodgates of populism, it was still a success, having politicized the notoriously apathetic Czech public to an extent not seen in a long time. Many lament that the vote polarized society; it could just as easily be said that, above all, it forced people to take a stand. The extent of volunteering work in favor of individual candidates was, by Czech standards, astounding.

 Civil society has become energized. Young people in particular have been mobilized with the help of social media. They will likely remain active even after the election, bringing long-lasting improvements to Czech politics.

 Various political scientists warned that a directly elected president could shift the system of parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic. Zeman is, indeed, the type of politician who could attempt to make such a change. But we should take into account that Zeman is not directly tied to one of the two large political parties. If he tried to change the constitutional system the big parties could easily ally themselves against him. He will, therefore, prefer to play by the rules, although he will stretch the constitution to the utmost.

 In foreign relations, Zeman generates some justified trepidation. He is, on the one hand, a pro-European politician, a positive shift after the euroskeptic Klaus. On the other hand, he has a tendency to create controversies with intemperate statements. It will be important for him to surround himself with good foreign policy advisers – and to listen to them – lest he generate scandals.

 Zeman could try to act as a statesman in his new role, and to control his impulse to thrive on controversy. However, given his personality and political past, he is not very likely to succeed. In many ways, he is a continuation of Klaus by different means. With Zeman as president, the Czech Republic can expect five years of political turmoil.

 TOL, 29 January 2013