Czech Republic: The Presidential Elections – What happened and what they mean

With the turbulence and discontent in the political landscape over the past year the presidential elections held in January were an important way for the Czech people to express their mood. Although the president has more powers than presidents in neighbouring European countries, it still remains a largely symbolic role with the majority of decisions being left to the parliament and the Prime Minister. It would be fair to say that the Czech President has a relatively large amount of choice in how much power and responsibility he or she wants to take in the running of the country. However, the President does hold some significant powers such as the allocation of bank officials and judges, the ability to veto bills by sending them back to Parliament and also the ability to dissolve Parliament under certain conditions.

Miloš Zeman photo-DraceaneMiloš ZemanThis power of veto is a power that many voters will find important. This is especially so since over the past year some particularly regressive bills attacking people’s health service and pensions have been pushed through Parliament with no protest from the current right wing prime minister Vaclav Klaus.

The presidential election placed Miloš Zeman of the left leaning SPOZ (Party of Civic Rights) – a non-parliamentary party – in power. He will be the third president since the formation of the Czech Republic and the first to be publicly elected, with previous presidential elections being carried out in the parliament.

The Election Process

In the first round of the election nine candidates contested for the attention of the masses including candidates from the two largest parties the ČSSD (Social Democrat) and the ODS (Conservative), along with 2 Independents, a Christian Democrat and the current finance minister Karl Schwarzenberg from TOP09 (a right wing split from the Christian Democrats) and 3 candidates from non-parliamentary parties. A significant factor in this round of voting was the complete lack of support for the two main parliamentary parties which was expressed when neither of them even qualified for the second round.

The winner of this round was Miloš Zeman who gained 24.2% of the vote for the non-parliamentary party SPOZ. This party itself originally came from a split in the Social Democrats. Zeman was closely followed by Karl Schwarzenberg who gained 23.4% of the votes. The previous favourite for winning the election, independent Jan Fischer, managed to come third with 16.3% whilst the Social Democrat Jiří Dienstbier gained 16.1%. The conservative ODS party, which is currently ruling in coalition with two other right wing parties, TOP09 and the Public Affairs, came second last with only 2.5% of the vote. Vladimir Franz, the likeable “apolitical” candidate managed to get more than the ODS with nearly 7%. The Christian Democrats got just under 5%.

This led to the second round of the elections, which took place two weeks later, being fought with a controversial, mud-slinging campaign pursued by the remaining candidates.

This round saw a decrease in turnout from 61.3% to 59.1% meaning just over 200,000 fewer voters showed that a significant amount of voters were not happy with any of the candidates. However, it seems that the vast majority of voters accepted the second round and its candidates even when they would have preferred someone else, with Zeman getting just under 1.5 million extra votes and Schwarzenberg getting just over 1 million extra. It is likely that Zeman would have won a lot of the Social Democrat votes and also votes from people who want to protest the current government which has recently implemented some very regressive cuts in the health service and pensions with Schwarzenberg being involved in a lot of these decisions. All in all, the Zeman victory was not much of a surprise and he won in every region apart from the conservative stronghold Prague.

Regressive Rhetoric

Quite simple economic reasons were not used much by the media during the election nor by top Czech sociologists, a lot of whom attributed the results to the campaigns and pre-election media coverage  There is no doubt that other factors had an input in the results. The run up to the election included borderline racist and chauvinistic comments from political supporters, including the current President, and both candidates making highly offensive and objectionable comments about women and selective accusations of being involved in the pre Velvet Revolution regime.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the run up was what seemed like a trade-off of misogynistic comments between the candidates, with the worst coming unfortunately from the more left leaning Zeman, who managed to glorify and make light of the subject of rape whilst Schwarzenberg denied allegations of corruption, comparing it to buying his wife presents in return for sex. This makes an absurd joke of the real corruption which is engulfing Czech society. This is not the first and will not be the last time harmful objectionable comments like these will be made and Czech Republic is far from being the only country in which it happens. In fact, it’s always been present with politicians as we know them.

The most telling thing about this though was the lack of a media backlash from it, especially when you compare it to the furore which was evoked when UK Prime Minister David Cameron said to a female MP, “Calm down, dear.” Quite rightly he is often reminded of this. It would be a mistake to say that this is a sign Czech society is more tolerant to these kinds of regressive attitudes. The case is that sadly these kinds of things are too close to the norm for it to provoke a serious media backlash.

Nationalism also played a significant role in the campaign. The current prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, founder of the ODS which models itself on the British Conservative Party, backed Miloš Zeman even though in the past they had been sworn enemies (Zeman being the 1990s leader of the Social Democrat CSSD). This was done on what appeared to be a very chauvinistic basis due to the fact that Schwarzenberg was originally an ethnic German from a wealthy background who left the Czech Republic for Austria when the Communist Party came to power in the late 1940s. For this reason his Czech language is not perfect and he also has an Austrian wife who would be the first lady in the event of his success, a wife who does not speak Czech.

An attempt at justifying this kind of chauvinism was fuelled by Zeman when Schwarzenberg spoke of the injustice of the Beneš decrees. The Beneš decrees saw the brutal expulsion of around 3 million ethnic Germans and Hungarians just after the Second World War and is an act that Zeman has rightly condemned before. However, for the sake of this campaign Zeman sharply criticised Schwarzenberg for bringing up such a sensitive subject.

Anti-Communist campaign

Another factor during the election was the Anti-Communist campaign waged by more than one candidate. Posters were shown with ex-Communist Party members, including Milos Zeman and previous favourite Jan Fischer, in old soviet propaganda style pictures. Jan Fischer was particularly targeted in this campaign and this was largely said to be the reason for his decrease in votes.

Sociologist Tereza Stöckelová said that it showed the lack of tolerance that people had for politicians involved in the old regime. However, this point is selective and flawed. The current Prime Minister, Petr Necas from the right wing ODS, was in the Communist Party youth wing up until 1989. The current president, who has been described as a Thatcherite, had a high up position in the national bank before the revolution. In fact, lots of politicians from that generation would have been involved in that bureaucracy. To top this off they would have been the worst, career chasing “communists” willing to desert the Communist Party and change sides as soon as it suited them.

The elections coincided with the anniversary of Jan Palach's death. Jan Palach was a left wing activist who set himself on fire in January 1969 to protest against the USSR invasion and the suppression of the Czech Communists’ progressive wing. However, this tragedy has been ignorantly abused by some right wingers, including a small group of mostly Karel Schwarzenberg supporters, who organised a one-day hunger strike and a week-long series of protests (named “Jan Palach” week), the largest of which saw around 200 demonstrating in Prague. This was in response to the Social Democrats forming coalitions with the Communists in various regions, as the latter have recently gained a number of positions in the councils. This was a minuscule protest compared to the Anti-Austerity protests of 2012 which reached up to 100,000.

There are a lot of factors which would affect the election results including anti-Communist campaigns and sensitive historical issues. However, in this case the determining factor is most likely the fact that the current government is responsible for very regressive reforms, a very unpopular amnesty, a very unpopular church restitution and a series of corruption scandals. Throughout the past period people’s living standards have been deteriorating and continue to decrease by the month. In January the government announced more cuts to the public sector. Unemployment levels in January show figures that have not been reached since the 1930s.

With this there will be less available healthcare for those out of work and for those who can’t afford it. Meanwhile, corrupt politicians are living comfortably off the toil of the masses and corporations continue to rake in the profits. A lot of these things were criticised by the Zeman campaign and he who also promised to challenge the government in these issues if elected. This is why he won. Despite the misogynistic comments, hypocritical nationalism and dirty tactics and the corrupt past, the masses showed what they were concerned about.

What Next?

The Czech masses have already shown signs of radicalisation in the past year including two big trade union organised protests. The Social Democrat youth wing recently organised a protest against the presidential amnesty. There have also been protests against cuts to education and to evictions of poor Roma families in the city of Usti Nad Labem, not to mention a very popular petition against the closure of special schools which have been relied upon by the most vulnerable people in society.

These radical signs will not go away and if anything will intensify over the next year with the government announcing more regressive cuts. The main point to be seen is whether Miloš Zeman will be susceptible to the mounting pressure from below or will he stick with the government agenda under the combined powerful pressure of international capital and the Czech wealthy and corrupt elite.

In the last two weeks the government controversially pledged support for the French imperialist driven intervention in Mali, sending forces and money. These decisions will be questioned more and more over time.

Those who say that the Czech people will sit by and let their rulers oppress them should look into the history of the Czech masses. It wasn't a long time ago in 1989 that the working class took to the streets to topple their bureaucratic rulers. This shows that the Czech people are more than willing and able to stand up once their patience reaches its limits.

Ross Walker, Praha Marxisté