Country gears up for election
Zeman and Fischer are firm favorites in first-ever direct presidential vote
Posted: January 9, 2013
A billboard by the Balbínova group questions Fischer's statement that he was never in the People's Militia, despite being a party member.
"Always faithful!" declares a billboard depicting Jan Fischer as a loyal communist vigilante. The unauthorized and provocative sign was erected on the side of busy Plzeňská street by the well-known satirical Balbínova poetic group.
But the cheeky poster highlights a growing political headache for Fischer, who until recently was considered the standout favorite to win this month's first direct presidential election. Now the communist past of the one-time caretaker prime minister (2009-10) is beginning to tarnish his campaign for the castle.
Last month, Fischer declared his membership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ) in the 1980s a "mistake" from which "I have learned my lesson."
"Among other things, it would never cross my mind to ask the leadership of the Communists (KSČM) or any other political party for their support," the unaffiliated candidate said after the Decommunist group called on him to withdraw from the presidential race.
The anti-communist activists had launched a campaign warning, "A Communist at Prague Castle? By No Means." In an online video, actor Tomáš Hanák also demanded Fischer give up his presidential bid: "It is not a shame to make a mistake. It is a shame not to face the consequences."
Fischer insists he is running for office because his candidature was supported by 100,000 people who took into account his past and the fact that he "had never harmed anybody, never reported anybody, never took bribes and tried to do my job as well as possible for 23 years."
Ironically, the biggest threat to Fischer's campaign comes from another former prime minister and Communist Party member, Miloš Zeman, who joined the KSČ during the Prague Spring reform movement in 1968 and was expelled from the party in 1970. The modern Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) says it is not formally backing any candidate in the race.
In recent polls, Zeman (Party of Civic Rights - Zemanovci, SPOZ) has taken the lead, and most commentators believe the popular anti-establishment figure will successfully advance to a second-round contest against Fischer. According to the final opinion poll published Jan. 7, Zeman enjoys 25.1 percent support among voters, while Fischer attracted 20.1 percent support.
The PPM Factum Research says Zeman, who was prime minister between 1998 and 2002, has enjoyed consistent voter support, while Fisher's popularity has decreased. Fischer suffered a further setback during a televised debate against Zeman with most commentators awarding the Jan. 4 contest to the former Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) chairman.
"Zeman was clearly more persuasive in his arguments. He did not let anything put him out of countenance, he did not lose temper, and, on top of that, he was even witty," said political analyst Tomáš Lebeda.
But his lighthearted style has drawn the ire of his former party, the ČSSD, which has also accused him of being linked to outgoing President Václav Klaus and surrounding himself with "untrustworthy people."
"His witty style should not overshadow the fact that he is no longer a competent thinker. The president is not supposed to be an entertainer," reads a letter released by senior ČSSD figures.
Of the nine candidates registered for the election, none is expected to reach the 50 percent of votes required to win outright in the first round.
"There is some uncertainty if the second round is a runoff between Fischer and Zeman, (because) the majority of the voters are still undecided, but actually the success of Fisher and Zeman in the first round is most likely," predicts Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University.
According to the PPM Factum poll, the most popular candidates after Zeman and Fischer are composer and artist Vladimír Franz (with 11.4 percent support), Foreign Affairs Minister and TOP 09 party leader Karel Schwarzenberg (11.0 percent) and ČSSD candidate and Senator Jiří Dienstbier Jr. (10.6 percent).
While 75-year-old Schwarzenberg trails in the polls, he has received some star-powered backing from high-profile Czechs including film director Miloš Forman, actor Jan Tříska and Olympic gymnast Věra Čáslavská, who consider him the only candidate fit to follow up the legacy of former President Václav Havel.
On New Year's Day, a joint petition called the "Epiphany Appeal" was released in support of Schwarzenberg's candidature, carrying the signatures of 130 personalities including Ivan Havel, the brother of the late President Havel.
PPM Factum's research conducted between Jan. 1 and 6 also predicts voter turnout to be nearly 70 percent and suggests the remaining candidates are highly unlikely to advance to the second round. It finds senior government Civic Democratic (ODS) candidate and Senate Deputy Chairman Přemysl Sobotka would gain 7.1 percent of the vote. Jana Bobošíková, chairwoman of the extra-parliamentary Sovereignty Party, was backed by 5.6 percent of respondents, while MEP Zuzana Roithová (Christian Democrats, KDÚ-ČSL) and actress and civic activist Táňa Fischerová received just 4.6 percent each.
In any scenario, Znoj maintains, the outcome of the Jan. 11-12 first round of voting should be known relatively quickly.
"The results will be known very quickly several hours after the closing of polling stations. There are only nine candidates, so the summarization process can go swiftly. It is just a question of the technological equipment, which is not bad," Znoj said.
But the race to the castle ended prematurely for one presidential hopeful, Senator Tomio Okamura, when the Constitutional Court threw out his bid Jan 4 to postpone the election after he was disqualified by the Interior Ministry. Okamura maintains he has met the candidate requirement to gather at least 50,000 valid signatures, but the court says it will continue to examine the legislation linked to the new electoral procedure.
The Japanese-born politician says the court had been under time pressure, saying it chose "the easier alternative" in its verdict. He has also refused to say what further legal steps he might take, including a possible complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.
Andrew Greene can be reached at