What to Expect from the Czech Presidential Election


Vladimir Franz, one of the eleven candidates to run for the Czech presidency. Demotix/Frantisek Gela. All rights reserved.

by Jan Hornát

For the first time in their history, Czech citizens will directly elect their president next year, to replace the notoriously Eurosceptic incumbent Vaclav Klaus. The stakes are high in this election, for it will be a large-scale stress test for Czech democracy and European integration in Central Europe.

In the first ever direct presidential election, the Czechs will head to the polls in January to elect their future head of state. The list of official candidates, who met the legal conditions to enter the presidential race, consists of eleven names, ranging from former prime ministers and members of parliament to an artist and an actress. However, as the powers of the president are limited, opinion polls show that the aptitude of the presidential candidate to represent the country abroad is one of the most important aspects in the decision-making of the Czech voter.

The next occupant of the Prague Castle will replace the current president Vaclav Klaus, whose second and final term ends on 7 March. Klaus is a staunch Eurosceptic known for his rhetorical attacks on European integration, long reluctance to sign the Lisbon Treaty and his remarks about the non-existence of anthropogenic global warming – he also infamously declared that he “knew no dirty money”. The president’s cynical statements have upset many Czechs and some even claim to be ashamed of their head of state – this partly explains why most voters seem to put so much emphasis on the “representativeness” capacity of the candidates. The presidential elections will indicate whether the Czechs want another EU-bashing president to represent them abroad or whether they wish to change the Eurosceptic tone that has emanated from Prague Castle for the last ten years.

The emphasis on the EU and foreign relations

The direct presidential election is an opportunity for Czech think-tanks and non-governmental organizations to initiate a wider discussion about the role of the president within the governmental structure and about the particular visions of individual candidates. The main objective of the discussion so far was to directly engage the voters in public presidential debates, where candidates presented their standpoints on various topics and then answered questions from the audience.

The first debate with candidates was prepared by Prague Pride, a non-profit association organizing the annual “queer pride festival” in the streets of Prague. The debate was dedicated to the discussion of human rights, social tolerance and LGBT rights. The second debate was organized by Glopolis, a think-tank devoted to the study of sustainable development, globalization and climate change. The focal point of the debate was Czech relations with the EU and Czech national interests. Candidates discussed their strategic views vis-à-vis the EU and their visions of Czech foreign policy. The same topics were at the centre of debates organized by the Association for International Affairs or by the anti-EU civic association Akce D.O.S.T. (loosely translated “Action Enough”), of which the latter concentrated on the prospective loss of Czech sovereignty in the face of deeper integration in the EU. The Vaclav Havel Library also prepared a conference with the candidates – the theme of the discussion was “The Czechoslovakian Presidential Tradition”, however most of the talking revolved, again, around Czech relations with the EU. The most publicized and latest presidential debate was prepared by the liberal think-tank European Values, which asked the candidates to present their “European visions”. The Prague Security Studies Institute in cooperation with Charles University is planning another presidential debate to take place at the end of November – once more focused on Czech foreign policy.

The thematic focus of the debates seem to imply that foreign policy and Czech relations with the EU will play a vital part in the elections. However, such an assumption would be myopic. The reasons for the predominantly foreign relations-oriented debates are diverse.

First of all, the Czech president has limited influence on internal affairs. Although he holds more powers than his counterparts in Austria or Germany, the bulk of internal decision-making rests in the hands of the prime minister and his ministries. Nevertheless, the Czechs have a tendency to overlook some of the president’s powers and assume that the president is a mere symbol of the state. Yet, the president names board members of the central bank, judges of the constitutional court and ministers and accepts their resignations. In the democratic process, these powers may turn out to be decisive in many aspects. Czech history provides an example – when postwar president Edvard Benes accepted the resignation of twelve ministers in 1948, the act cleared the way for the Communist party to fill the vacated ministries and facilitated the takeover of the country – the so-called Czech coup. Most recently, given the success of the Communist Party in this year’s regional elections, the Czechs are curious whether presidential candidates might  potentially name a government which would include communist ministers. Some candidates have stated that not naming such a government would be unconstitutional, while others have rejected the idea.

Secondly, most Czech think-tanks are foreign-policy oriented and thus the debates are organized rather along the themes of the EU and national interests. In this sense, Czech civil society needs more think-tanks which actively focus on internal affairs of the state.

The third reason is the legacy of Vaclav Havel. Havel was a well-known and respected figure around the world and helped the new country gain a firm posture in the international community. He emphasized the spread of democracy and the promotion of human rights, addressed a joint session of the US Congress and was a close friend of the Dalai Lama. Havel is the symbol of Czech statehood and, along with the first president of Czechoslovakia Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, he is considered one of the most prominent figures in modern Czech history. It seems that the Czechs will always have the tendency to measure their future presidents against the backdrop of Havel and Masaryk. But it is important to note that the two have assumed presidency in the midst of revolutionary moments fueled by national pride – Masaryk became the president of a newly established Czechoslovakia, free from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Havel helped overthrow communist rule. Such historical moments commonly generate national symbols and outstanding personalities, whose actions become immortal and almost mythical. So, understandably, none of the current candidates has such strong moral authority as Havel or Masaryk. Nevertheless the future president has the opportunity to continue in the tradition of Havel and Masaryk and become a respected representative of the Czech Republic in the EU and the world.

So what are the perspectives of individual candidates on the EU and the world? Perhaps the only candidate who would follow in the Eurosceptic footsteps of Vaclav Klaus is Jana Bobosikova, who in 2002 established the Eurosceptic party Suverenita (Sovereignty). The party nominee of the Civic Democrats (the former party of Klaus) and former president of the Senate, Premysl Sobotka, seems to share some views with the current president. During the campaign, however, he appeared more moderate in tone. On the other side of the spectrum stand Jiri Dienstbier and Zuzana Roithova. Dienstbier, the nominee of the Social Democrats, claims that the remarks of Klaus are discrediting the Czech Republic in the eyes of the EU – as a result, Europe perceives the country rather more as a “troublemaker” than a partner. He calls for deeper integration, supports the banking union, the harmonization of taxes within the EU and proposed the creation of a second chamber of the European parliament. Roithova, Christian Democratic Union nominee and member of the European Parliament, is considered to be one of the most “euro-optimist politicians in the Czech Republic”.

The rest of the candidates seem to be between these two opposite poles – they promote cooperation with the EU and do not oppose further integration if Czech national interests are protected. Former prime minister of the caretaker government Jan Fischer is proposing a concept of “flexible integration”, which aims to reconcile different views of individual EU member-states on the appropriate scope and depth of integration, while Minister of Foreign Affairs and candidate of the TOP 09 party Karel Schwarzenberg claims he will restore Czech dignity and respect within the EU. Former prime minister Milos Zeman, for example, asserted that he would support the idea of a European federation and a unitary European army, which, according to his words, would be more effective.

Challenges facing the direct election

The constitutional act which mandated the direct election, passed in February 2012, was generally acclaimed by the public. As presidential campaigns gain momentum, however, certain unforeseen challenges face the election. Commentators argue that the legislation guiding presidential campaigns is shallow and vague. To be eligible to run for president, candidates were obliged to hand in petitions signed either by fifty thousand citizens, twenty deputies or ten senators. Critics claim that citizens’ signatures are easily falsifiable and that a sample of signatories should be personally contacted to confirm their signature. The law only orders the Ministry of Interior to prove the mere existence of the signatories on the basis of the census. (At the time of writing, the Ministry is in the process of vetting the petitions. However, some sources have already reported that nearly half of all the signatures may be invalid. The Ministry will announce the final results of the vetting process on 23 November.)

The main point of concern is the transparency of campaign funding. The law states that all candidates must create a transparent bank account and disclose all revenues and spending. Candidates are allowed to spend a maximum of forty million Czech crowns (1.6 million euros) on their campaign in the first round and ten million (400 thousand euros) in the second round. However, the law does not clearly specify as to when a campaign officially starts and does not pose clear sanctions for breaching the given rules. Some of the campaigns have set up their offices and begun renting billboards already during the summer, but the official start of the campaigns is often interpreted as the moment candidates handed in their petitions (6 November). Therefore, some of the candidates started disclosing their finances later than others.

One of the first candidates to disclose campaign contributions and spending was Jan Fischer, who has done so in July and was followed by others such as Vladimir Dlouhy and Milos Zeman. Nevertheless, speculations have arisen as to whether candidates faithfully disclose every donor and every crown spent. In reaction, the Czech office of Transparency International and the non-governmental organization Nasi Politici (Our Politicians) have decided to step in and closely monitor campaign funding, since the Czech Republic lacks a similar regulatory agency as for example the US Federal Election Commission.

According to current polling data, Jan Fischer and Milos Zeman will be the two candidates likely to advance to the second round. Both are estimated to have a 25-30 percent support among voters. Third place seems to be constantly shifting between Karel Schwarzenberg, Jiri Dienstbier, the candidate of Japanese descent Tomio Okamura and the eccentric artist Vladimir Franz – at this moment all would receive around six percent of the vote. The Communist party, despite its success in the October regional elections, has not nominated a candidate from amongst its ranks.

The role of Vladimir Franz in the election is worth mentioning. For most Czech citizens he is an unacceptable presidential candidate – his entire body, including face, is covered in tattoos. Franz has a law degree, but he is mostly associated with theatre and the arts. Most young voters, however, are poised to vote for Franz as a protest against the current political establishment tarnished by corruption scandals, nepotism and corporate ties. Franz has not made many political proclamations, but we are yet to see how his campaign evolves. He claims that it was not his proper intention to run for the office, but that he was persuaded by the massive support of the people. Tana Fischerova, an actress and former deputy, chose a similar approach to her campaign.

In fact, this is the model other candidates wish to offer to the Czech voter. Five of the eleven candidates are independents and distance themselves and their campaigns from political parties. Even the party-nominated candidates avoid mentioning their party affiliations and attempt to present themselves as disengaged from the party structure. The Czech voter is dismayed by the oscandals, political bickering and elitism of the ruling parties and in that sense a campaign which is independent from party politics appears as a logical step to attract voters.

The first direct presidential election in the Czech Republic will demonstrate how mature Czech democracy is after 23 years of freedom from communist rule. The election will be closely monitored by the press and non-governmental organizations to assure that individual campaigns comply with the electoral law, despite its alleged vagueness. Still, future elections are needed to provide deeper experience with the processes of direct presidential elections. Knowledge of the mistakes from the first election will aid in enhancing future legislation guiding presidential elections. Think-tanks will develop skills to lead presidential debates and choose the right debating topics. Analysts and commentators will distinguish which aspects of individual campaigns need to receive more scrutiny. In addition, the distrustful public will simply need to get used to what is basically “American-style campaigning” (i.e. ceaseless campaign fundraising) – a novelty in the Czech context.

Even before the race is actually over, one fact is certain. The ever-Eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus is leaving Prague Castle and the claims of all front-running candidates indicate that they will choose a more cooperative approach to the EU than their predecessor.

Piece originally posted at Open Democracy |Creative Commons License