Former PM defeats the prince in Czech election

By bne IntelliNews January 25, 2013

Tim Gosling in Prague -

Milos Zeman, a former leftist prime minister with a good line in witty putdowns, defeated his aristocratic challenger Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round of the Czech presidential election January 26, becoming the country's first popularly elected president.

The polls had suggested a tight finish to what became a surprisingly bitter race, though in the end Zeman's support in rural areas and the industrial centres in the north and east of the country gave him a comfortable victory of 55% of the vote compared with 45% for Schwarzenberg.

Both men are elder statesman of Czech politics - Zeman is 68, Schwarzenberg even more so at 75. Yet it was Schwarzenberg, rebranded as a mohawk-sporting punk rocker in his campaign posters, who struck a chord with middle-class, young urbanites yearning for a change in the country's venal and corrupt politics, which helped push the turnouts in both rounds to above 60%. That sentiment was credited for Schwarzenberg's late and surprising surge in the first round, when he took 23.5% of the vote. Zeman won the first round as expected with 24.7%.

Schwarzenberg's campaign had the definite whiff of one whose success was at least partly based on the fact that he was not his opponent, with those voters backing him clearly seeing Zeman as the second coming of Klaus - an arrogant and polarising figure who has dominated Czech political life for many years. A controversial New Year amnesty announced by Klaus that will release as many as a third of Czech prison population and ending a series of long-running corruption cases is bringing his time in the castle to a controversial and ignominious end.

In addition, many remember Zeman's time in the PM's office as leader of the Social Democrats (CSSD) in 1998-2002, which was blighted by corruption scandals, in addition to the cynical "opposition agreement" that saw Klaus' Civic Democrats (ODS) support his government, despite sitting on the other side of the house, in return for influence on policy. The Czech press is rife with analysis that Klaus clearly intends to extend his influence after his term-limited ten years in office through a Zeman presidency.

Past, present, future

That was one of Schwarzenberg's main lines of attack, having characterised his opponent as a "heavyweight of Czech politics," whose "political views come from the past." Zeman shot back that Schwarzenberg was a politician of the present, tying him to the deeply unpopular austerity policies of the current coalition government, which includes Schwarzenberg's Top09 party. Schwarzenberg was also branded a foreigner and out-of-touch aristocrat - he spent more than half of his life in exile in Austria, having fled there with other members of his clan, the largest private landowners in the country, when the Nazis invaded in 1940.

Zeman also retains influence with certain factions within the largest opposition party CSSD, despite having left the party in acrimony in 2007. This is giving rise to fears that Zeman could emulate Klaus in continually meddling in the government's affairs. Klaus famously was in involved in orchestrating the collapse of an ODS government during the country's time when it held the EU rotating presidency in 2009, a humiliation for the country.

The post of president is considered largely ceremonial, though does formally appoint prime ministers and, perhaps more importantly, members of the board at the Czech National Bank. While the country's first president following the collapse of communism, the late Vaclav Havel, steered well clear of the day-to-day business of government in an apparent attempt to provide emotional and moral leadership, his successor Klaus - a former PM and mainstay of Czech politics since 1990 - has regularly wielded his veto and other points of influence.

Zeman has made it clear he would look to push that further. During the campaign, he said he would attend government meetings regularly, particularly during debates over "vital legislation," and that he would try to convince the government and possibly also parliament of his viewpoint. The left-leaning Zeman will clearly have much to say about the economic policies of the current austerity-wielding administration and has already called for new elections, since the current coalition has lost its majority in parliament. Any new parliamentary election would almost certainly put the CSSD back in power.

Zeman's win will mark one significant change from Klaus' ten years in office: Prague Castle will lose its reputation as the most trenchant critic of the EU. The departing president has made it his business to encourage and lead the traditional scepticism of Czechs towards any grandiose scheme, and has compared the EU to the USSR on more than one occasion. That has helped push the country to become one of the very most awkward members of the 27-member bloc.

Zeman, on the other hand, is an avowed europhile. During the campaign, he expressed support for joining the euro and the planned EU banking union - an policy that the government and central bank, rightly proud of the stability of the Czech banking sector, loathe. Those views put Zeman at odds with much of the country; the next five years in Czech politics promise to be no less volatile than the previous five.

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