After the election, Czech political transformation is not over yet

On Saturday, the Czechs elected Miloš Zeman, an important figure of the democratic transition of the 1990s, to be their new president. Although this role is mostly a symbolic one, expectations were high for a change in public policy. Are Czech voters bound to be disappointed?

Czech president-elect Miloš Zeman. Demotix/Tomas Tkacik. All rights reserved.Czech president-elect Miloš Zeman. Demotix/Tomas Tkacik. All rights reserved.

There were three strong personalities in the Czech politics of the 1990s: Václav Havel, the leader of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Václav Klaus, the architect of post-communist economic renewal, and Miloš Zeman, Klaus’ main critic and opponent. All of them became Czech president – the last mentioned in the historical first-ever direct presidential election this Saturday.

Zeman defeated Karel Schwarzenberg (55 % to 45 % in the second round), minister of foreign affairs, nobleman, familiarly called “prince”, and a follower of Havel-style politics. Schwarzenberg, who always stressed the role of civil society, the Czech role in the promotion of human rights around the world and who held a frank view on Czech post-war history, won the support of the capital Prague and other big cities. On the other hand, Zeman, who left the Social Democrats and founded his own marginal party, attracted votes from the countryside and areas with high unemployment.

This was the Czechs' first experience of direct election of the head of state. Paradoxically, the Czech presidency has not that many competences; yet, expectations of the president are high. Presidents have always been strong figures. That counts for both Czech presidents, as well as for their democratically elected predecessors in former Czechoslovakia. The election campaign wove a considerable amount of ambiguity round the position: the candidates and the media knew well that the president cannot propose legislation; however, they often discussed what laws should be amended, and how. Both were aware that the president cannot shape economic policy; yet, it became one of the hot electoral topics.  In the Czech political system, it is the government who holds executive power. So the question arises - what will the president actually do with his unprecedented legitimacy? Zeman is, in addition, an experienced politician with a number of friends and foes in politics. Is he going to intervene in the day-to-day political life of the country, in the same way as incumbent president, Václav Klaus, has done?

Apropos this, Václav Klaus signed an awkward alliance with Miloš Zeman before the elections. He publicly announced that Zeman is the only “real politician” on the list and did not hide his happiness when the results were announced. Klaus and Zeman were the greatest rivals of Czech politics in the 90s. The former was a proponent of a fast economic transformation based on a neoliberal model; the latter criticized it from social democratic positions. Surprisingly, Václav Klaus tolerated Zeman’s minority government in 1998-2002 and the two somehow became personally close. The “era of opposition agreement”, as the Klaus-Zeman cartel has been labelled, has since then become infamous for high corruption and the absence of authentic opposition forces.

Zeman and Klaus have similar views on how politics should be conducted, which is what brought them together in the first place. There are also areas of policy where their views diverge – but not enough, it seems, to tear their friendship apart.

A new EU policy from the Czech president?

The Czech Republic's relationship with the EU is one of the main areas where the views of president and president-elect diverge. Klaus is a notorious critic of the EU in its current form. He has often stated that the single currency was a step in a wrong direction, and that European integration should be loosened. He points to the low democratic accountability of supranational EU institutions and emphasises their power over people's lives. As such, Klaus is a founding father of Czech euroscepticism, now embraced by his former political party, the Civic Democrats – an ally of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament.

By contrast, Zeman calls himself a euro-federalist. We do not see many politicians in today’s Europe who could win an election with such a confession. Nevertheless, Zeman does not understand (his) Euro-federalism as something that would require only a deeper integration. His favourite word is 'subsidiarity', which he understands in a slightly fundamentalist manner. He believes that many competencies should be drawn back to the national level and accuses Brussels-based bureaucrats of being useless for the average citizen. During the campaign, he often depicted EU legislation on energy-saving light bulbs as an example of the Brussels “idiocracy” – showing himself quite capable of drawing on latent Czech Eurosceptic sympathies for his own political goals.

The Czech president-elect believes that the EU should have a unified army and an authentic common foreign policy. He has never explained how this should be achieved. His views on international politics have never reflected those of the European mainstream. He did not support the granting of the UN non-member state status to the Palestinian Authority last November. The Czech government was of the same opinion, although the rest of the EU voted for the proposal – or abstained. In the event of a real European foreign policy being built, should the Czech Republic give up its fiercely pro-Israel policy for the sake of a common European posture?

Since Zeman left high politics in 2002 he has only been a distant follower of the current state-of-play in the EU. His knowledge is eclectic and his tongue is sharp. He will probably not offer a comprehensive and coherent vision for the EU or the role of the Czech Republic in it; however, he will often comment on it, following Klaus' tradition. The general course of Czech EU policy will not change - at least until the next parliamentary elections, which are planned for late spring 2014. A most Eurosceptic Government still holds executive power and the pro-European part of it, including foreign minister and defeated candidate Karel Schwarzenberg, will remain humiliatingly powerless.

The end of Václav Havel’s legacy in foreign policy?

Václav Klaus likes trips to Russia, the other big power in the Czech Republic's vicinity. He has never criticized and never seen any violations of human rights there. “Human-rightism” – a neologism he claims to have invented – represented an ideology he feared. Thus, he has always been warmly welcomed in Russia, and he has often stressed the importance of economic modernization for the enhancement of civil liberties, in accordance with the Russian authorities' doctrine.

We do not know much about Zeman’s perception of Russia. However, there are some signs telling us that he will most likely follow his predecessor’s footsteps. International promotion of human-rights has never been his cup of tea. Moreover, the representatives of a Russian oil-production monopoly, Lukoil, in the Czech Republic were the architects of Miloš Zeman’s campaign. Last but not least, Zeman believes that Russia will enter the EU one day (!). It is clear that Russia will try to use this opportunity. Zeman is indubitably more approachable for them than his opponent, Karel Schwarzenberg, would have been. It is fair to add that the stakes are high for Russians. They want to build a new nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic and Zeman seems to be an ideal access point for their lobby efforts.

Bad neighbours and a good neighbourhood policy?

A stable and friendly policy towards neighbours has been a cornerstone of Czech foreign policy post-1989. Zeman contributed to it when he was the prime minister of the government which improved Czech-Slovak relations and solved some problems with Austria. Yet, Zeman’s behaviour during the campaign was contradictory. First, he attacked the Slovak most-read newspapers, for he did not like an op-ed which described him in an unpleasant way.

The Sudeten Germans who were expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after the Second World War came next. It was an easy target. Schwarzenberg said that then president Edvard Beneš, who agreed with displacing two million Germans from Czechoslovak territory, would have been brought to the Hague as a war criminal had it happened today. A furious reaction followed. Schwarzenberg was depicted as a defender of Nazis and Miloš Zeman didn't refrain from adding some fuel to the fire.

There will be most likely be no breakthrough in Czech-German relations. Although the problematic historical issues – including financial compensation - are currently not on the table, since both sides agreed to take it off the agenda in 1997, the campaign showed that this question must first be resolved in terms of a collective Czech identity, until Czech officials acknowledge and denounce the post-war crimes on Germans. This election told us that it is not yet quite the time.

About the author

Vít Dostál is Research Fellow at AMO, a Czech foreign policy think tank. He pursues his Ph.D. in European Studies at Masaryk University in Brno.