Jan Macháček

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Czech Business Weekly

Presidential race in dire need of a pacemaker

15. 10. 2007
Four months from now, this country will have a newly elected head of state.

Chances are pretty high that it will be current President Václav Klaus. The reason is obvious. Klaus is very popular. European heads of state usually are—even Austrian monarchs and communist presidents (Ludvik Svoboda, Antonín Zápotocký) have been popular. And the only reason that Václav Havel’s popularity dipped for a short while was because people disapproved of his expeditious marriage to Dagmar.

So any political party that decides to oppose Klaus or tries to damage his chances of re-election is potentially risking its own partisan approval rating.

Klaus will stay connected in people’s minds with the Civic Democrats (ODS), and he probably improves the party’s overall approval rating by about 5 percent, perhaps even more. That is why ODS members will vote for Klaus even though many deputies and senators have been disappointed by Klaus’ handling of recent crises.

The Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) are officially undecided whether to approve Klaus or another candidate, but it is probable that they are waiting on a better deal for supporting Klaus in the final vote. Besides it is almost certain that influential KDU-ČSL deputies such as Minister of Finance Miroslav Kalousek will vote for Klaus, as they have always been very close.

The Social Democrats (ČSSD) officially have their own candidate, but since the ballot is secret, we cannot exclude that some deputies and senators who are close to former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman will “secretly” support Klaus. By secretly we mean that they will never admit to voting for him in public. This might be the case of former Minister of Social Affairs Zdeněk Škromach, for instance.

During the last presidential elections, Klaus was elected with the support of the Communists (KSČM). What is likely to be their position in the upcoming vote?

If they ally themselves too closely to the ODS, they risk causing a rift on the left that could weaken the ČSSD. But Klaus appeals to many communists because of his deep Euroskepticism, even though his ideological roots are in the opposite camp. Klaus dislikes the European Union because he thinks that it imports bureaucratic socialism into the country, while communists dislike the EU because they believe it imports international capitalism into the country. Klaus also remains quite popular among older KSČM voters, who disliked Václav Havel simply because he was an active opponent of the old regime.

Should the communists “betray” their potential allies on the left (the ČSSD), it could weaken the chances of the two parties forming a government at some point in the future.


The contenders

At present there are three potential candidates to take on Klaus, one of which will get the backing of the ČSSD before seeking the support of the remaining parties.

One is Jan Švejnar, an economist, who escaped to the U.S. after 1968. Švejnar is certainly not right wing. In the U.S. he votes for the Democrats, which is fairly typical in academic circles. He supports a system of tuition for universities and pension reforms. If the ČSSD is serious about reforming and modernizing, it could start by accepting Švejnar as a presidential candidate. But it is hard to imagine communists giving their support. For them, Švejnar represents the wrong kind of “internationalism,” the capitalist variety, and he fled the communists for the U.S.

Václav Pačes, head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, has said that he will introduce himself to the communists and make his positions clear (such as his approval of the radar base). This is at least a more direct and honest approach than Klaus, who never discloses his discussions with the communists.

But while Švejnar was an escapee from communism, Pačes was a former Boy Scout and Scout leader. Pačes’ family was, however, also persecuted in the 1950s.

The third potential candidate is Jiří Dientsbier, the former foreign minister and dissident. Dientsbier is perhaps more likely to be acceptable to the communists. He is the only candidate who has been a member of the communist party (in the 1960s) and he has consistently spoken out against the invasion of Iraq, the independence of Kosovo and the NATO attack on Serbia. On the other hand, he is also a former political prisoner.

The chances of winning against Klaus are not very high, but it does not mean that a serious challenge is not worth mounting. The quality and content of Klaus’ second term could still be influenced by a strong challenger for the presidency.

Because Klaus will not be seeking re-election, we are likely to see a much less restrained president in the second term. His anti-EU rhetoric could become more aggressive and it is probable that the Supreme Court and Czech National Bank (ČNB) will be re-enforced by Klaus loyalists to an even greater extent than now.

Appointments to the ČNB will be especially sensitive because Klaus opposes a common European currency even more than he opposes the EU itself. The role of the central bank in accepting and implementing the euro is crucial. It is very probable that Klaus will be a more active and voluble president in his second term in all imaginable fields—offering pardons, vetoing legislation and speaking out on foreign policy.

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