Storming the castle
After an aggressive campaign, Miloš Zeman's victory exacerbates country's political flux
Posted: January 30, 2013
With cries of "Long live Zeman" ringing out around a packed conference room at the Top Hotel Praha Jan. 26, a triumphant Miloš Zeman bustled his way through the media scrum to step onstage and deliver his first speech as future president. He vowed to represent all Czechs and promised to stamp out a corruption problem that has plagued successive governments here.
"As a president elected in a direct popular vote, I will try to be the voice of every citizen," he said to loud cheers from the crowd. "I want to be president of the bottom 10 million. These include the voters of both Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg. I do not want to be president of the mafia groups who act as parasites on this society."
The former prime minister emerged victorious from a bruising campaign that has divided the nation, and one during which he was accused of unfairly attacking Schwarzenberg, his conservative opponent. Critics have also highlighted Zeman's links with shady figures from the 1990s era of privatization, warning he could polarize a Czech political scene that is already in a state of flux.
In the second-round runoff Jan. 25-26, Zeman received 54.8 percent of the vote, compared with 45.2 percent for Foreign Affairs Minister Schwarzenberg. He becomes only the country's third president since its independence 20 years ago, following in the footsteps of the late Václav Havel and current head of state Václav Klaus, whose term in office ends in March.
Voter turnout was slightly down at 59.11% for the Jan. 25-26 second round from 61.31% for the first round
Miloš Zeman 54.80 %
Final result: 2,717,405 votes
First-round result: 1,245,848 votes; 24.21%
Karel Schwarzenberg 45.19 %
Final result: 2,241,171 votes
First-round result: 1,204,195 votes; 23.40%
Appealing to poorer voters from rural areas, the 68-year-old leftist (whose name fittingly translates as "yeoman" in English) topped the polls in all of the Czech Republic's 14 regions except for Prague. He was able to capitalize on the government's unpopular austerity measures and pension reform, pointing the finger of blame at Schwarzenberg, who is also chairman of junior coalition partner TOP 09.
For his part, the 75-year-old aristocrat ironically gained most support from young urbanites hoping to change the status quo, with his successes mainly coming in the big cities. However, that wasn't enough to sway the outcome, as a runoff bid that had started strongly eventually ran out of steam. The turnout was 2 percent lower than in the first round at 59.1 percent, a sign perhaps of waning interest from undecided voters in the campaign's final stretch.
It had threatened to be a tight race, and that was reflected in the tense atmosphere at Zeman's temporary headquarters while his supporters waited for the results to filter through. But within 90 minutes of the polls closing, it was clear their man had won, and the sound of champagne corks popping could soon be heard across the room.
"I think [Zeman] is the best choice for our country in its current situation," said actor Daniel Hůlka, who led a rendition of the national anthem after Zeman's speech. "He will be a good president in terms of domestic relations because he treats everybody equally, from common people to celebrities or those in public life. The same applies to his foreign policy, as well. He will have the same attitude in dealing with, let's say, Americans, Germans or Indians. His range is very broad."
Not everyone would agree with that statement, though. A chain smoker famed for his love of the liqueur Becherovka, the gregarious and outspoken Zeman has frequently courted controversy on the international stage.
He once compared Muslims to Nazi supremacists, and in 2002, labeled the 3 million Sudeten Germans who were forced out of the former Czechoslovakia after World War II "Hitler's fifth column." Outraged, then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder canceled his proposed trip to Prague in protest.
Lies and dirty tricks
The very topic of nationalism overshadowed a controversial last week of election campaigning. Zeman, whose sentiments were readily echoed by his nondiscreet backer Klaus, first chastised Schwarzenberg for spending 40 years in Austria, where he lived in exile during communist rule. But more crucially, he then pounced on comments made by the minister about the Beneš Decrees during a televised debate Jan. 24.
In response to a question from host Václav Moravec, Schwarzenberg said the expulsion of Sudeten Germans would nowadays be considered a war crime, and that Czechs should feel guilt over the act. Exploiting ethnic tensions, Zeman argued this meant his opponent planned to pave the way for a host of claims on confiscated property. Media commentators called out the former prime minister for propagating a lie, but the damage was done.
"The main issue should have been Schwarzenberg's participation in the center-right government," said political analyst Jiří Pehe. "However, Zeman's team didn't think this would be enough to beat Schwarzenberg, so they went after him on his supposed lack of Czech-ness. It's a shame, because Zeman would still have won if he'd kept the debate on the left-right axis."
Meanwhile, unable to hide his emotions, the outgoing Klaus stoked the fire by praising his countrymen and -women for not being "confused by an incredible anti-campaign from the media." In a thinly veiled reference to the war cry of his predecessor and bitter rival Havel, he added, "At very long last, truth and love have defeated lies and hatred."
An aggrieved Schwarzenberg later told daily Právo Havel would likely be astounded at the way in which his words were used, calling Klaus' statement a "singular absurdity that wouldn't be possible in a normal country."
Prior to casting his ballot, Prime Minister Petr Nečas (Civic Democrats, ODS) warned the campaign had escalated "in an absolutely unhealthy way and not to the benefit of the Czech Republic." Zeman addressed this issue in his victory speech, likening the battle against Schwarzenberg to a football match between the Prague sides Sparta and Slavia. "Now it's time to join forces for the national team," he said. However, others aren't so sure the president-elect will be able to unite the two camps.
"It will take some time to heal the wounds," said Milan Znoj, a political scientist at Charles University. "I believe it's possible with regard to the nationalism issue and questions of the past, which won't play any further role in his politics. But it's not so easy with regard to the wounded minds of those admirers of Havel who see Zeman as a continuation of Klaus and his disrespect to Havel's legacy."
Zeman's success marks a dramatic return to power after 10 years in the political wilderness. During his time as Social Democratic Party (ČSSD) prime minister, between 1998 and 2002, he was credited with strengthening the economy but blamed for opening the door to corruption by establishing unhealthy links between mainstream political parties and big business.
That was largely due to the opposition agreement that he engineered with his opposite number Klaus and the ODS. The ČSSD was left unchallenged in a minority government, while the ODS supported the party in return for a share of influence. Zeman filled his Cabinet with men such as Interior Minister Stanislav Gross and Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Kavan, both of whom became embroiled in major scandals.
Blasts from the past
Indeed, often at the hotel, it felt like taking a step back in time. Kavan, who has previously been accused of collaborating with the communist secret police and signing overpriced contracts that cost the Foreign Affairs Ministry some 100 million Kč, faced a barrage of questions from the press as he entered the building. However, he denied his appearance would be an unwelcome distraction.
"I would be surprised if Mr. Zeman was not happy to see me here," Kavan said. "The fact that his team actually phoned me up and said that I'm invited to come illustrates that. I think he would be happy, yes."
Another shadowy presence in the room was Miroslav Šlouf. Renowned for his ties to Moscow, the lobbyist's business interests have forced Zeman's team to deny Russian money was used to finance the campaign. Šlouf, also notorious for aiding Klaus' re-election as president in 2008, has kept a low profile in recent weeks, with Zeman publicly distancing himself from his right-hand man.
Back in the spotlight, the 64-year-old refused to be drawn in by questions on how he had contributed to Zeman's presidential bid but hinted he had been up to his old habits. "You know, Prague is a small city, and you can never exclude the possibility of meeting somebody and asking him, 'So what do you think?' and 'Why do you think this?' In this way, I cannot rule out having met some of the top ODS representatives in Prague."
That, though, could be something they will live to regret. Zeman, who has made no secret of his plans to interfere with the day-to-day running of government, wasted no time in causing trouble for Nečas' fragile coalition when he used an interview on Czech Television Jan. 26 to demand early elections, questioning the legitimacy of some of the MPs who support the prime minister.
"A leftist president must logically be an opponent of a rightist government," he said. "I believe that if the government is propped up by [LIDEM], a party that was only formed by deserters from Public Affairs, it would be fitting if early elections were held and only parties that received more than 5 percent of the vote got into Parliament."
Nečas immediately played down the significance of those remarks, branding them "irrelevant" because "under the Constitution, only the government is responsible for the Chamber of Deputies." However, Zeman's words emphasize the threat that he poses in the future, not only to the coalition but to Bohuslav Sobotka's opposition ČSSD, as well.
Having left the party in 2007 following a long-running leadership dispute, Zeman is thought by many analysts to be biding his time to unleash his fury on the ČSSD hierarchy. A number of members have stayed loyal to the former chairman, who is keen to grow his own Party of Civic Rights - Zemanovci (SPOZ).
"The Social Democrats have some real problems ahead," Pehe said. "Zeman's election has cemented his supporters in the party, which means Sobotka and [defeated ČSSD presidential candidate Jiří] Dienstbier are both endangered species. Moreover, any weakening of the Social Democrats always strengthens the Communist Party, so I think we are in for some really interesting times."
- Matĕj Moravec contributed to this report.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at