A marathon race for the Czech presidency

By bne IntelliNews July 16, 2012

Jennifer Rigby in Prague -

As hopeful suitors line up outside Prague Castle, it is almost like a modern-day fairytale. Only this time, they are not there to woo a princess, but the populace. And the prize is not happily ever after - it is the Czech presidency. 

Early next year, for the first time ever Czechs will vote directly for their president. With the decision about who gets the keys to the official residence in Prague Castle now in the hands of the public, it's no wonder that candidates are already lining up to step into the controversial, but certainly big shoes of the outgoing president, Vaclav Klaus.

In the past, the largely ceremonial post of president has been chosen by the politicians bickering in smoke-filled back rooms; besides, the hold on the post by the two giant Vaclav's of post-communist Czech Republic - Havel and then Klaus - was never been really in doubt. This election, therefore, is a seismic change for Czech politics. While the Czech Republic is a parliamentary democracy with ultimate power resting in the hands of the prime minister, the president is still a major figure, particularly on the international stage.

Independence is shaping up to be a key theme of this election. Czechs, fed up of the constant stream of political scandals, are making it clear in the polls that they prefer candidates with no affiliation to the tarnished political parties.

The current clear frontrunner, Jan Fischer, has independence in his bones, and if that perhaps makes this former statistician a little dull, the voters do not seem to mind. Indeed, Fischer's lack of political bias was one of the key reasons he was chosen as the caretaker prime minister in 2009, when the Czech government collapsed in the middle of the country's presidency of the EU. "I do not want to be committed to any political party for supporting me in the presidential election. The only commitment I want to make is to the Czech citizens," he told bne from his office in London at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

He's not the only candidate who currently works abroad. Snapping at his heels in the polls is another independent, leading economist Jan Svejnar. He ran in 2008, when only politicians could vote for the president, but his "US-style" campaigning - meeting people around the country - won many admirers. He's clever and resourceful, but there's one stumbling block facing him - he holds American citizenship and has lived there since his late teens. For citizens of a small, young, ambitious country, this is hard to bear. Svejnar has clearly realised this though, promising to drop his US citizenship if he wins.

The third independent candidate, Vladimir Dlouhy, is taking the race seriously - both politically and literally. A marathon runner, he plans to stage runs across the country as part of his campaign. His name in Czech means "long" and he's even calling his campaign "The Long Run". "Also, metaphorically, it is a long run," he tells bne , "because for me, it starts now and could finish in 2018 [the next presidential election]. I am just coming out of the shadows now, I believe I have a chance but if not, I am here for the long run."

Dlouhy is already well-known in the country, famous (and popular) for being the Czech Republic's first ever trade and industry minister in Klaus's first government as PM in 1993. "In campaigns, I used to tell people what the political and economic reality would be like in 2000, but I resigned after eight years [in 1997]. I believe I left the work only half done," he says.

While popular in the 1990s, now many Czechs associate Dlouhy with an era of privatisations which did not end particularly well. On the other hand, in his day he was known as the "Teflon politician" because nothing stuck to him - a reputation he may perhaps hope to maintain as he defends his work in the private sector since 1997 for clients including public enemy number one, banking giant Goldman Sachs.

Who's your daddy

But if independence is one theme for this election, age and experience is another. It's the Goldilocks formula: not too little, not too much, but just the right amount.

For example, Právo newspaper has described Fischer and Svejnar as "good old daddies", a presidential tradition dating back to the first Czechoslovak president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in office from 1918-1935.

For other candidates though, a lack of experience is regarded as a weakness. And in the case of 42-year-old left-winger Jiří Dienstbier, the principled candidate of the opposition Czech Social Democrat Party (CSSD), it could be crucial. "He is the most popular politician in the Czech Republic, but that's not sufficient to take office now because the factor of his youth is more important in this election," says political analyst Vít Kleparnik, co-founder of the think tank CESTA, whose take is backed up by the polls, which show Dienstbier trailing, although his numbers are improving.

It's perhaps the opposite case for another of the candidates, Karel Schwarzenberg, the aristocratic TOP 09 candidate who is currently foreign minister. "Schwarzenberg is a man of history - and of the 2010 election - and it will not be a repeat," reckons Kleparnik. After an early surge in popularity in the presidential contest, Schwarzenberg himself has said he will have "little time" to campaign because of the demands of his current job.

Age and experience is also on the side of Milos Zeman, who is running under the banner of his own small party. This former prime minister has already shown his political nous in his recent attempt to brand the presidential race as a straight left/right contest. There are far more right-wingers in the contest than left, meaning a vote on those lines could see the rightist vote split, and Zeman reap the rewards.

Czech PM from 1998-2002, Zeman is a well-known name with a real chance, often vying with Svejnar in the polls for second place at the moment despite - as one observer put it - sometimes being considered a bit like the dodgy uncle of Czech politics with a fondness for the local tipple Becherovka. On the other hand, he's the only candidate so far to collect all 50,000 signatures needed to officially register as a candidate, he's won the support of ex-rival Klaus, and his reputation should not be underestimated.

The remainder of the field - including the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) candidate, Premysl Sobotka; President Klaus's assistant, Ladislav Jakl; and anti-European Sovereignty party leader and TV presenter, Jana Bobosiková (the only woman in the contest) - look unlikely to challenge the big beasts already listed.

For now, most of the candidates are content with collecting signatures, raising funds and preparing for battle. But with a field like this, it is going to be an interesting few months. As Schwarzenberg himself put it: "the fun will start in autumn."

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