Chances now fifty-fifty, says presidential candidate Jan Švejnar

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK

Jan Švejnar is taking on the popular incumbent Václav Klaus in this Friday’s election to the largely symbolic post of Czech president. The challenger left Czechoslovakia with his family at the age of 17, after the Soviet invasion of 1968. Following a short period in Switzerland, the Švejnars moved to the United States, where Mr Švejnar – now 55 – has since spent most of his life.

A liberal economics and public policy professor at the University of Michigan, Jan Švejnar is backed by the Social Democrats and the Greens, and has been working hard to win further support from other parties. But it is fair to say that outside of political circles he was a far from familiar figure when he announced his candidature in December.

That is something the challenger has attempted to rectify with a series of visits to regional centres around the country. I managed to speak briefly with Jan Švejnar a couple of weeks ago while he was on the campaign trail in Prague. My first question: why run for the post of president?

“It’s more personal and more ‘grand picture’. The personal is that I feel I’d like to contribute something to my country. I’ve been engaged here on the academic side, I’ve been advisor to the government, and I figured this was the time to really step in a little bit more.

“On the larger scale, why the timing is important, I feel that as the Czech Republic is now part of the European Union and the whole world is entering the profound globalisation era the leadership of the country will matter in the sense of how the Czech Republic will fare on the world scene.

“To give you an example, Ireland and Portugal started at roughly the same point in terms of economic development and Ireland has obviously more than exceeded expectations, while Portugal has underperformed, relative to what was expected.

“So some countries will do well and some will not, and I feel that by providing the leadership in the Office of the President, and working together with the political parties, Parliament and the executive branch, I can actually achieve something for the country.”

What do you have to offer that the incumbent Václav Klaus doesn’t have to offer?

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
“Well, there is the fact that I am above politic parties. The president here should be politically independent. I am. I have both the local and the international experience, and obviously in the world of globalisation broad international experience is important.

“I am looking more forward than backward. I pretty much do hold strong views that are aligned with those of the Western world, be it in the area of global warming, or the active role that the Czech Republic can play in the EU. So there are major differences.”

Though both are broadly centre-right, Mr Švejnar certainly has a more positive view of the European Union than Václav Klaus, who is a firm Euro-sceptic, or Euro-realist as he puts it. In a similar vein, Mr Klaus, unlike the challenger, is luke-warm to say the least when it comes to adopting the common European currency. And the incumbent’s sceptical views on climate change are, shall we say, unusual.

When we move from policy to politicking, Mr Klaus is far and away the more experienced of the two candidates. Indeed, the founder and honorary chairman of the Civic Democrats is without question one of the two or three most important figures in post-communist Czech politics.

By contrast, Mr Švejnar is a latecomer to the political game; he has served as an advisor to ex-president Václav Havel and others, but has never been affiliated to any party. So given his relative outsider status – and Mr Klaus’s ultimate insider status – isn’t it a disadvantage for Jan Švejnar that when it comes to horse-trading for votes, he simply has less to offer?

“You’re right, I’m not offering that. I’m offering vision, I’m offering my skills, my expertise. I believe that the parties that are supporting me – and that’s my advantage, I’m supported by a significant part of the political spectrum, from the left to the right – will do whatever is needed in good old politics, where I have no comparative advantage whatsoever. I’m focusing really on ideas, and where the country should go.

Jan Švejnar in Ostrava, photo: CTK
Why have you been visiting regional centres around the country, given that the people can’t vote, it’ll be deputies and senators?

“It’s true, but recall that in the first three weeks of January the deputies of the Parliament are not in session in Prague but are in their regions and cities and towns. So actually visiting there makes sense, because that’s where I can see them, and I do see them there. I do take the opportunity also to talk to the citizens at large.

“The president in the Czech conception is a president for all the people, and in that sense talking to people makes sense. I do learn a lot, I have an opportunity to tell them how I feel, how I think about various issues. So it’s a really important part of the whole campaign.”

Some émigrés who return to the Czech Republic say they experience a certain resentment, that they’re seen as a being a little bit foreign…is that something you’ve experienced? And could it even prevent you being elected?

“I don’t feel that I’ve really experienced it much in the work that I’ve done so far. I’ve created a first-rate economics institution in collaboration with Czech colleagues, I’ve advised President Václav Havel on economic matters, I’ve talked to virtually all the prime ministers and ministers of finance in all the governments, so I don’t feel that’s the case.

“Obviously as part of the political battlefield right now these issues are being raised. But I think it’s more political…parlance than a real sense that I’m in some sense deficient, or wouldn’t be able to handle the job.”

Mr Klaus is commonly regarded as the favourite to win Friday’s bicameral vote. Jan Švejnar has the backing of the Social Democrats (though it is distinctly possible not all of their parliamentarians will toe the official party line) and the Greens.

In order to prevail, he will need the support of at least some Christian Democrat lawmakers, which he seems assured of, and the backing of the Communist Party, which is another story. In fact the Communists may well back Mr Švejnar in the first two rounds, but only with an eye to preventing Mr Klaus winning – they have hinted they would then scupper the decisive third round by abstaining, before introducing a candidate of their own in a subsequent election.

Václav Klaus and Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
On the other hand, the challenger has been saying some of Mr Klaus’s Civic Democrats have pledged to vote for him. So it’s all rather difficult to read.

All things considered, how does the candidate himself rate his chances?

“One has to take the dynamics into account. When I started a couple of months ago I was obviously the outsider both in opinion polls and among the members of Parliament who are going to vote.

“Now I am the one who is if anything ahead in the opinion polls. Many people in Parliament are seriously considering voting for me, so I think that the chances now are about fifty-fifty.”

Few pundits would share Jan Švejnar’s optimism; if he does become the next president of the Czech Republic it could only be described as a big upset. However, there is no doubting that the previously little known economics professor has impressed many in the last two months, and been a more than worthy opponent to Václav Klaus.