Czech presidential vote: a society divided

This Saturday's election saw the victory of former PM Milos Zeman over current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. The duel between a decried populist and an old-school aristocrat revealed a division previously unseen in modern Czech society.

Jan Hornát
30 January 2013
Defeated presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg. Demotix/Tomas Hajek. All rights reserved.

Defeated presidential candidate Karel Schwarzenberg. Demotix/Tomas Hajek. All rights reserved.

A few days before the first round of the presidential election, Charles University sociologist Martin C. Putna described the vote as an historic event in which the Czechs are “subconsciously electing their king”.

Putna claimed that this inadvertent royal tradition rests on two factors. The first is the presidential residence – Prague Castle located in the heart of the capital and situated on a minor hill overlooking the city – which has been the seat of Czech monarchs since the ninth century. The second factor is the Czech Crown Jewels, stored in the St. Vitus Cathedral inside the Prague Castle complex, the fourth oldest coronation vestments in Europe. Both the Prague Castle and the Crown Jewels are among the major symbols of contemporary Czech sovereignty, nationalism and statehood even though they are intrinsically linked to a regal tradition.

Whether the Czechs were looking for their king in their first ever direct presidential election or not, they were faced with a decision between two candidates representing entirely different values. From the perspective of a presumed royal tradition, the names of both candidates foretold their roles in the election. Karel Schwarzenberg (the current Foreign Minister, a nobleman and head of the House of Schwarzenberg – an Austrian-Czech aristocratic family) would represent the higher echelons of society, while Milos Zeman (whose last name literally translates as “laird” or member of the lesser gentry) would epitomize the lower classes of Czech society. This, in fact, proved to be accurate as Schwarzenberg found his voters mainly amongst the higher middle class, students and in larger cities. Zeman, on the other hand, had his base in the country-side and among classes with smaller incomes.

During the campaign, and especially in the last two weeks between the first and second round, Zeman chose a more offensive approach than Schwarzenberg. Bringing up issues which added a nationalist tone to the election, Zeman accused his opponent of maligning former president Edvard Benes and the expulsion of Sudeten Germans after World War II. He also pointed out that Schwarzenberg’s wife lives in Austria and does not speak Czech and that Schwarzenberg himself lived as an emigrant during the communist era.

For his comments on the matter of Sudetenland, the German magazine Die Welt has already proposed not to invite Zeman for an official state visit since he won the presidency on an artificially-produced wave of anti-German sentiment.

Zeman is well-known for his populism and at times vulgar remarks and thus his campaign style barely surprised anyone. Compared to Schwarzenberg (whose Czech is not perfect and who, in his own words, “mumbles”), Zeman is a very dexterous speaker and is not afraid to use half-truths to solidify his arguments. Schwarzenberg, on the other hand, attempted to carry out his campaign in a rather defensive manner, avoiding personal attacks and populist rhetoric.

In addition to having an inclination towards populism, Zeman openly despises the media. In the late nineties, he claimed that “the stupidest creature on Earth is the contemporary Czech journalist”. After the election, he has moderated his tone, saying that he would accept questions from “intelligent journalists”. The truly disturbing fact about Zeman’s relationship with the media is that during his time as a prime minister (1998-2002) he led an unsuccessful effort to ruin the weekly newspaper Respekt, which investigated sensitive political cases concerning Zeman’s government.

As the popular vote gives the new Czech president a theoretically stronger mandate than former presidents who were indirectly elected by members of parliament, Zeman promised to be a more active head of state and use all powers granted to him by the constitution. However, some analysts are concerned that Zeman may go as far as misusing his constitutional powers for the sake of pursuing his own policies and influencing legislative voting. But hopefully, Zeman has no plan to hinder the democratic process in the Czech Republic.

Nevertheless, the vote left Czech society divided into two opposing blocks and it was perhaps the aggressive tactics that Zeman selected in his campaign that prompted this rift. Each candidate represented a different “current” or “ethos” within the Czech society. Slovak newspaper Hospodarske noviny summed up the election as a decision between the “Masaryk tradition and the Havel ethos” (embodied by Schwarzenberg) or “the tradition of vulgar, communist-era, crony-capitalist politics” (embodied by Zeman). For the supporters of Zeman, this allegation is unacceptable since their candidate has announced a programme to eradicate corruption and the ties between big business and politics – however, the voters of Schwarzenberg in part perceived this election as a step in which to uphold the “Havel ethos”.

The rift was further deepened as outgoing president Vaclav Klaus surprisingly used (rather abused) Vaclav Havel’s motto, claiming that in the presidential election “truth and love have triumphed over lies and hatred”. This was obviously an ironic and scathing remark from Klaus, who has never hidden his dislike of former president Havel. Klaus’s comment indirectly offended not only Schwarzenberg, but also his 2.2 million voters.

It is now up to the president-elect to bridge the gaps the election created within Czech society. In his first public speech after the votes were counted, Zeman stated he would be the president of the “lower ten million” of Czech citizens and commended the voters of Schwarzenberg for being politically-active citizens. This was the first step to consolidate the voters of both sides and embrace the two voting blocks, but it is certainly not enough.

In order to overcome his shadow and unite the two opposing blocks, Zeman must show that he is a president of all the people – not just his own voters. Despising the journalists will not help. Investigative reporters are an inalienable part of democracy, not a hindrance, and as Czech voters demand more transparency in government and anti-corruption measures, journalists have a vital role in society. Zeman must show that he respects the democratic process and the institutional checks and balances. He must also demonstrate that he has terminated his former ties to lobbyists and éminences grises of the 1990s’ Czech political scene. If Zeman fails to meet these objectives, he will ultimately fail in consolidating a divided society.

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