Miloš Zeman will on 7 March become the third Czech president, almost 11 years after he left high politics for semi-retirement.
Zeman, who served as the Czech prime minister between 1998 and 2002, won a sweeping victory in the country’s first direct presidential election, taking all the 14 regions except central Bohemia, of which the capital Prague is part. His opponent – Karel Schwarzenberg, the 75-year-old current foreign minister – won only in the urban centres of Prague, Brno, Plzeň, České Budějovice and four districts bordering Poland. In the end, the result – 54.8% to 45.2% – belied the closeness of the first round, which Zeman won by just 0.8 percentage points.
For a time after the first round, on 11-12 January, it had seemed that Schwarzenberg, whose support had languished in single digits for months, might snatch an improbable victory and overcome some of his political handicaps, above all his leadership of one of three parties in a government whose popularity has sunk under the weight of austerity measures, scandals and divisions.
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Schwarzenberg’s team successfully tapped the youth vote, with a campaign that depicted him as a punk and the choice of those who wanted a better political system.
By contrast, Zeman, who is 68, won the solid support of voters from his old party, the Social Democrats, and from the Communist Party. Zeman sought to depict Schwarzenberg as a puppet of Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, the co-founder of Schwarzenberg’s party, TOP 09, as well as Schwarzenberg’s role in government.
He and his camp also accentuated a strong nationalistic overtone to debate about Schwarzenberg, a member of the old Austro-Hungarian aristocracy who spent the communist period outside Czechoslovakia and who retains Swiss citizenship.
The nationalistic element of the campaign strengthened substantially in the second round and particularly after Schwarzenberg said that the post-war expulsion of ethnic Germans and (some) Hungarians at the orders of Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš would now be considered a gross violation of human rights.
Zeman leapt on that statement, saying a day later that “until yesterday, I would have respected your becoming the president of the Czech Republic, but a man who labels a president of Czechoslovakia a war criminal talks like a Sudeten German”.
The outgoing president, Václav Klaus, sought to heighten the sense of Schwarzenberg somehow not being Czech. He said that the president should be “someone who belongs to this country, who is part of this country, who spent his life here, [in] hard times, better times, the best of times, the worst of times”. Klaus’s wife also weighed in, saying that she did not want to be succeeded as first lady by someone who does not speak Czech, a reference to Schwarzenberg’s wife. Their oldest son falsely claimed that Schwarzenberg’s father was a member of a pre-war fascist group. Schwarzenberg’s father pledged his loyalty to Czechoslovakia before the war and the Nazis confiscated the family’s property.
Such comments – as well as memories of Zeman’s premiership, a period in which Zeman and Klaus signed an opposition agreement that came to be seen by many as institutionalising clientalism and corruption – brought in many of the country’s leading cultural figures on Schwarzenberg’s side.
The post of president is ostensibly ceremonial, but both previous occupants – Václav Havel (1993-2003) and Klaus (2003-13) – have played an active role in politics and Zeman swiftly indicated that he will continue in that mould. While insisting that he was speaking as a private individual, he said that the current three-party government should call early elections, because it sometimes relies on the votes of a party formed since the last election.
Zeman has said that his first trip abroad will be to Slovakia, maintaining a tradition observed by Czech and Slovak presidents since the ‘velvet divorce’ of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
However, Zeman’s presidency has begun on a sour note even with Slovakia, as during the campaign he said that he would give no interviews to Slovak journalists after the Slovak daily Sme described him as the worst of the candidates for the Czech presidency because, in its view, his style was similar to that of Vladimír Mečiar, the highly controversial first president of Slovakia.
In his note of congratulation to Zeman, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, recalled Zeman’s time as prime minister, saying that he had made a “significant contribution to the country’s transformation and its subsequent accession to the European Union”.