Ready for round two
Country divided as Schwarzenberg, Zeman square off in presidential race
Posted: January 16, 2013
Arms raised and smiling for the cameras, Karel Schwarzenberg looked like a man who had just won a boxing match rather than a political contest. But as the 75-year-old presidential hopeful walked onstage to address his supporters at a packed theater in the center of Prague Jan. 12, he would have known his biggest fight is yet to come.
Schwarzenberg will face Miloš Zeman in a Jan. 25-26 runoff to succeed the outgoing Václav Klaus after neither gained an outright majority in the first round of voting over the weekend. With the Czech Republic directly electing a head of state for the first time, former leftist Prime Minister Zeman garnered 24.2 percent support, while a late surge in the polls saw Foreign Affairs Minister Schwarzenberg finish second of the nine candidates with 23.4 percent.
That shock rise was at the expense of longtime favorite Jan Fischer, another former prime minister, who failed to capitalize on his earlier wave of popularity by ending up a distant third with 16.4 percent of the ballot. The result means the two veterans of the Czech political scene will now go head to head, the pair both having started their careers when serving in respective governments of the 1990s.
"I'm happy for the moment, although it will be a hard battle in the next 14 days," Schwarzenberg told The Prague Post. "Mr. Zeman is a tough and experienced politician, so these two weeks will be rather difficult. It's a clear choice between Mr. Zeman and me. We have different concepts of life, of politics, of everything."
Never far from his iconic tobacco pipe, Schwarzenberg - representing the conservative coalition TOP 09 party - cut a relaxed figure as the results began to filter through. He mingled with his campaign team and supporters, among them artist David Černý and economist Tomáš Sedláček. The latter, who advised former President Václav Havel, pointed toward undecided voters as the reason for the elder statesman's success.
"It was a dream I didn't dare to dream," Sedláček said. "Of course, [the surge in popularity] surprised me. But suddenly Karel Schwarzenberg's star rocketed when everybody realized that now they have to choose. There was no more time for dreaming, and he was really able to gather the votes that were quite scattered."
Despite his age and aristocratic background, "the Prince" also found support from swaths of young people disenchanted with a political environment that has been tarnished by backroom dealing and corruption. Prior to the election, they organized concerts in his name, mobilizing on social networks such as Facebook and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the image of a punk rocker-styled Schwarzenberg.
While the ruling Civic Democratic Party (ODS) candidate Přemysl Sobotka took a battering, the TOP 09 man escaped unscathed, even benefiting from the extra envelopes that undoubtedly came his way. Outgoing President Klaus labeled Sobotka's humiliation "the biggest debacle of the right in post-communist history," adding the elections were "a horrible defeat of the ODS, and the left has dominantly won."
Past versus present
Schwarzenberg is widely perceived as being incorruptible due to his family's vast wealth, and he can boast a host of admirers on the international stage. However, perhaps most crucially to his campaign, the minister has signaled a break from the policies of the notoriously outspoken Klaus, vowing he wouldn't overreach his responsibilities as head of state.
"If Schwarzenberg wins, he will be a president we can be proud of," Sedláček said. "He will be able to represent us, not just domestically but also internationally. There are all these possibilities of not having to be ashamed of what our president is going to say or do in a completely unpredictable manner. And Schwarzenberg will carry on the legacy of Havel, which was the most successful foreign relations legacy we have ever had."
While the Czech presidency is mostly symbolic (the president's main powers include a legislative veto and the appointment of central bankers and judges), it carries a significant moral influence over the population, building upon a foundation laid by the late Havel, in whose office Schwarzenberg worked as chancellor. The two men remained close until the playwright's death in December 2011.
"Of course, Václav would have followed the election with a lot of interest," said his brother Ivan, a renowned scientist who joined in the celebrations at Archa Theater. "He would have been thinking of what he could have done to help Karel. He would have wanted to contribute somehow, but he would not have been sure how to do it."
In contrast to the jovial atmosphere inside Schwarzenberg's temporary headquarters, where free drinks flowed like tap water and music played long into the night, Zeman hosted the media in a cramped restaurant below his campaign office on Loretánská street, a stone's throw from the castle.
With frustrated TV crews barely able to maneuver, the 68-year-old delivered a short speech before heading back to the relative calm of upstairs. He responded to an earlier barb from his rival in which he was called "a man of the past" - a reference to his role in the shady 1998 opposition agreement - by highlighting Schwarzenberg's link to the government's tax hikes, pension reform and recent amnesty.
"This [result] sets up a vote between a candidate from the left and one from the right," said Zeman, standing under the banner of his own Party of Civic Rights - Zemanovci (SPOZ). "It's true I'm associated with the past. But Mr. Schwarzenberg is answerable for what the current government has done. Nobody can evade his or her responsibility for either the past or the present time."
Famed for his chain smoking and love of the liqueur Becherovka, Zeman is a charismatic yet divisive personality who doesn't suffer fools gladly. He is credited with reviving the Social Democrats (ČSSD) after the revolution, as well as strengthening the economy during his tenure as prime minister, but has spent much of the past decade in the wilderness after a long-running dispute with the ČSSD's hierarchy finally resulted in him leaving the party in 2007.
Although they are ideologically opposed, Zeman's bid for president has been indirectly endorsed by Klaus. Observers predict the SPOZ founder would continue in the same vein as his predecessor, looking to interfere with the day-to-day running of government.
"Zeman will try to keep the debate on the left-versus-right axis, where he can portray Schwarzenberg as being co-responsible for government policies," said political analyst Jiří Pehe. "Schwarzenberg will attempt to focus the discussion on the merits of the presidency, the ability to represent the country well and Havel's legacy versus Klaus' legacy. The result of the election will depend on the narrative that prevails."
According to political scientist Anna Matušková, who is helping Schwarzenberg with his campaign, a lot will also hinge on the support afforded by the seven eliminated candidates, notably that of Fischer and the ČSSD's Jiří Dienstbier. As of press time, Sobotka and Zuzana Roithová (Christian Democrats) had given their backing to the TOP 09 politician, while the ČSSD reluctantly urged its members to vote for Zeman.
Whether they do is another matter. Dienstbier, whose late dissident father was a good friend of Schwarzenberg's, refused to recommend "the lesser evil" to his voters. Fischer, meanwhile, wouldn't reveal whom he wanted to win, saying only that "two candidates fielded by political parties are advancing." Later, he was quoted on news server Tyden.cz as saying Zeman would "isolate the country eastward," nodding to SPOZ's reported connections with Russian businesses.
The 62-year-old's stony silence reflected the somber mood of his camp on results day, as a once cast-iron presidential challenge fizzled out in spectacular fashion. Seeking to appeal to the everyman, Fischer had fallen victim to a satirical billboard offensive that picked on his Czechoslovak Communist Party past just weeks before the vote, and his candidacy was never able to recover. The man himself, though, was determined to stay positive until the bitter end.
"I feel confident, despite the very harsh anti-campaigning," he told The Prague Post an hour after the polls had closed. "It was absolutely unbelievable, but I am not complaining, because there is no place to complain to." Asked if he had any regrets, Fischer replied, "It is premature to make some analysis or assessment. There will be enough time for doing that later."
With his show of defiance coming too late to save him, the mild-mannered statistician paid the price for displaying a weak public persona and producing several uninspired performances in the televised debates, Pehe said, adding voters then realized Fischer wouldn't be able to beat Zeman. However, other analysts think the former prime minister simply launched his campaign too early.
"It's extremely difficult to be a frontrunner for more than a year," Matušková said. "[Fischer] was in first place for such a long time, so he was always going to be the first one to lose. Everybody else was a challenger, which is a much better position to be in."
Also keeping quiet on his preferred candidate is Vladimír Franz, who captured the imagination of people here and abroad. He was greeted by loud cheers from his enthusiastic team of volunteers on arriving at their base in the trendy NoD café, a showing of fifth in the polls doing nothing to dampen the party spirit.
The tattooed composer made international headlines for his all-over body art, but shrugging off the attention, Franz said his campaign had brought about a "worthwhile civic awakening" and that his main aim was to "tell people that public affairs are their affairs." He added foreign coverage of the election was "often more professional than [that of the] Czech media."
"This could be the start of more open elections and a wider political debate," said Vojtĕch Bednář, one of the three people who encouraged Franz to run for president. "I hope it will help in the next parliamentary elections as well, so that now people will think and discuss things more, they will be more active, and they will be more open to other candidates and parties than those that have been around forever."
- Eva Brichová contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
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