Czech presidential vote sets up contest of left vs right

By bne IntelliNews January 14, 2013

bne -

The first round of voting in the Czech Republic's first ever direct presidential election has set up a face-off between two highly contrasting figures. The run-off will see left-leaning former prime minister Milos Zeman attempt to push an agenda of growth over austerity in his bid to beat the country's aristocratic foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, in the second round.

Zeman's success in the first round vote to select a successor to the rabidly anti-EU Vaclav Klaus - whose second and final term ends on March 7 - was little surprise, with the former leader of the Social Democratic (CSSD) Party taking top spot with 24%, according to results published by the Electoral Committee on January 12. However, Schwarzenberg's 23% return did raise eyebrows. He presumably benefited from the poor pre-election performance of long-time frontrunner Jan Fisher, with the former centre-right caretaker PM beaten into third place.

The run-off candidates - both of whom promise to pursue a far less strident line in relations with Brussels than Klaus has followed - have already drawn the battle lines ahead of the second round on January 25-26. It sets up a fight in which Schwarzenberg will attempt to play on the population's anger over persistent high-level corruption, while Zeman aims to lever voters fury over the current government's harsh austerity drive.

The current foreign minister - founder of junior government coalition partner Top 09 - insisted that Zeman "represents the past," a clear reference to the rise in corruption during his time in office between 1998 and 2002. The reference also appears designed to remind voters of Zeman's connections to Klaus - his Social Democratic government was able to rule only via the highly controversial "opposition agreement", which saw Klaus' opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) support policy in return for influence.

That connection is a bid to appeal to the younger, more urban population who are weary of the current president's confrontational approach to the EU and environmental concerns. The Czech Republic "is in the heart of Europe, we shouldn't be an island," said Schwarzenberg.

However, Zeman has plenty of his own ammunition. With the current government's continued austerity drive now blamed for helping drive the economy into recession, the left-leaning Social Democrats have obliterated the right in recent local and senate elections. Schwarzenberg is clearly exposed by his role in Prime Minister Petr Necas' cabinet, and particularly by the fact that Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek - budgetary consolidator in chief - is Top 09's deputy chairman.

"A right-wing politician is one who votes for an increase in the value added tax on basic food and medicine. A right-wing politician is one who votes for pension reform that favours the rich over the poor," Zeman said during a debate on Czech Television on January 13.

Although the post of president is largely symbolic, it retains important powers, including the appointment of the prime minister and members of the board at the Czech National Bank. In addition, Klaus has regularly meddled in both economic and foreign policy during his eight years in Prague Castle via his use of the presidential veto.

"The impact on the economy from either of these men becoming President is not expected to be large," Erste Bank analysts write. "The biggest change is the expected departure from a zealously anti-European rhetoric of the outgoing President Klaus towards a circumspectly constructive one. We do not expect dramatic changes to the Banking Board of the central bank (which is one of the most important powers vested in the President); the current tradition of appointing experts should continue."

However, the analysts also clearly expect the next president - whichever of the two triumphs - to continue to try to raise the involvement of the office in government policy, no doubt boosted by the fact that the presidency will have a mandate from the population for the first time.

"Although falling into disfavour with the CSSD and only receiving their grudging endorsement after the first round, M. Zeman is seen as more left-wing than K.Schwarzenberg," Erste notes. "Should the next government be formed by the CSSD, it will certainly find M. Zeman easier to work with. However, both candidates are strong personalities and cannot be expected to merely rubber-stamp government's decisions or to lend the government uncritical support."

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