Analyst discusses campaigns, turning points and outcome of presidential election

Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

Miloš Zeman was the favourite against Karel Schwarzenberg in the presidential election so his win did not come altogether as a surprise; all the same, observers expected it to be a good deal closer. Radio Prague spoke to political analyst Petr Just about the result.

Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
Discussed in the interview are key turning points the run-up to the second round, as well as how the new president might differ from his predecessors. Petr Just:

“The result was to a degree predictable since public opinion polls showed he had built a small lead over Karel Schwarzenberg. But it was expected that the race would be a good deal closer and that the numbers might finish 51-49 or something similar, a close-shave – not a difference of 10 percent, which is larger than was expected. It was not as close, but also not unusual, similar to results in elections in neighbouring countries.”

Both campaigns were very closely-watched in the two weeks leading up to the second round but Mr Zeman’s came under widespread criticism in the media for stooping to dirty tactics, appearing to make use of half-truths or lies: was that criticism justified and were those tactics a strong factor in Mr Zeman’s win?

“I think so, yes. The strategy that helped Miloš Zeman win was the decision to try and shift attention to topics which in the long run were far less important than what one would expect in a presidential campaign. Problems that were artificially made-up or fuelled like the issue of the Beneš Decrees or Czech-German relations, which were solved in past years. The campaign managed to ‘re-open’ them and use the issue, knowing it was a sensitive one for his rival candidate Karel Schwarzenberg.

“In a large part of Czech society Czech-German relations are still handled a little more carefully, with many still apparently being afraid that property could be returned to ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II. These are examples where Miloš Zeman and his team were able to use - if not half-truths – artificial issues to draw the spotlight away from real and more relevant and serious problems.”

It is true – and was an interesting aspect of this election – that the Beneš Decrees did become kind of a turning point given that it is a 70 year old topic… In this sense, was Karel Schwarzenberg, who spent much of his life abroad in neighbouring Austria, at a disadvantage?

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
“Generally-speaking, I think it was a disadvantage for Mr Schwarzenberg because he is connected to the German-speaking world, whether it is Germany or Austria where he spent much of his time or Switzerland where he also has citizenship. Generally, when there were references to Germany or the Beneš Decrees or the Sudetenland I think some voters put Mr Schwarzenberg on the same pile. His connections to Austria and Switzerland made it seem like a natural connection for some and in that sense was a disadvantage.

“For many political scientists or sociologists or even psychologists it was really surprising that such past issues that are 70 years old could play such a huge role in a campaign today, when we are faced with so many difficulties. Not only the Czech Republic but Europe also faces crucial political and economic problems, so in this situation to ‘solve’ something which was 70 years past is quite interesting but doesn’t speak too highly of Czech political culture.”

Anyone who is familiar with recent Czech history or Czech politics in the 90’s will be familiar with the name of Miloš Zeman. Obviously he was one of the three big names to come out of the 90’s after Václav Havel and Václav Klaus. In that sense, is there a certain logic, so to speak, to him following the other two?

“Generally, I can agree with that premise; however it could equally be argued that Zeman belongs to a generation that is already considered ‘over’. Miloš Zeman is a part of this first generation of post November 1989 politicians but it seems that after 23 years since the transition there should be an opportunity for a new generation. That was the reason why many nominate or voted for candidates like Vladimír Franz or Zuzana Roithová in the first round, people not connected with November ‘89.

“So Miloš Zeman belongs among the let’s say ‘founding fathers’ of the Czechoslovak and then Czech democratic system; at the same time his time as prime minister in the 1990s was so controversial that it was not necessarily a given that he should one day take up the highest post and become head-of-state. A lot of people probably gave him support on the basis of experience and saw his role in the 90s as a kind of justification to hold the highest office.”

Miroslav Šlouf,  photo: CTK
A certain style of politics that was practiced in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium in which Mr Zeman was involved in as prime minister is something some voters will be worried about. After all, there were connections to shady individuals such as former advisor Miroslav Šlouf; do you think as head-of-state now that he will go to greater pains to distance himself from that past and try and reinvent himself?

“What is interesting is that Miloš Zeman faced these questions during the campaign but he never really answered the criticism, taking aim at his connections to past advisors. When he did respond he said there was no longer a connection. But Mr Šlouf was sighted just today as one of the people closest to him at his campaign headquarters. Many will be watching closely who he brings with him to Prague Castle and it remains an unresolved issue. Of course, we can never be sure of some people being connected to him unofficially which could still be a threat as it was in the 1990s.”

In terms of Mr Zeman as president do you think we will see a change in approach? One of the things that he promised during the debates was that he would be much more involved in day-to-day politics than his predecessor, at least regarding issues such as tax reform or social policy. He indicated that he would speak more in Parliament than his predecessor: will he be more active, more hands on?

“Well we of course have a Parliamentary democracy and political scientists always warned that direct presidential elections might create a new centre of power that might unbalance the institutions in the parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system the major link and core of the system should be the relationship between the lower house (the Chamber of Deputies) and the government. If we are going to have a president who will take a very active approach and get involved in the day-to-day we will move closer to a more semi-presidential system like they have in France.

“Miloš Zeman has never hidden his desire to influence daily politics in the government; he has never hidden his ambitions to witness government sessions much more than his predecessor. How things will work in practice we’ll see, but right now it seems he will want to be much more involved in cabinet policy. That could be a threat to the current right-wing government but even to a leftist government if the opposition Social Democrats win the next election as opinion polls suggest. Even a Social Democrat government could have a tough cohabitation with Miloš Zeman if you remember how the party back in 2003 failed to unite behind him as a candidate the first time he ran for president.”

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
If we come back to the election: this was the first-ever direct presidential election here and it seemed like the public was much more involved than in the past when the president was chosen in a joint-session of Parliament. There is talk of this fairly deep divide between voters of Mr Schwarzenberg and Mr Zeman: do you think that this divide will disappear now or will it take a while?

“I’d say the divide was a natural development given there were two candidates. When you have two people facing off in a runoff you expect that society will form two ‘poles’, in this case one pro-Schwarzenberg and one pro-Zeman. I suspect that once the emotions begin to die down that things will slowly get back to normal without a deep gap between both sides. At the same time, Mr Zeman as a strong personality but also as a controversial figure will lead some to still organize protests. Those who oppose him or didn’t want him to become president will probably make themselves heard online or on facebook and other social media or even by organizing occasional protests on the street.

“Just a few moments ago, not long after the result was announced, someone had already created a group on facebook called ‘Zeman is not my president’ and there was another named ‘Miloš Zeman Countdown’ already counting the number of days Mr Zeman has remaining in office! So we see some people will remain opposed. The majority, by comparison, I think will 'seal' the gap and live under Miloš Zeman as they would have under Karel Schwarzenberg had he won.”