Could economist Jan Svejnar unite opposition to incumbent Klaus in presidential elections?

Jiri Paroubek and Jan Svejnar, photo: CTK

One of the hot topics of Czech politics recently has been the search for a candidate with a serious chance of denting Vaclav Klaus's hopes of re-election in next February's presidential elections. Now a new name has emerged: the Czech-American economist Jan Svejnar. Opposition leader Jiri Paroubek is hoping his Social Democrats can persuade other parties to back Mr Svejnar. The economist already has the support of the Greens, the smallest party in the Chamber of Deputies, and the coalition government. But to defeat President Klaus, Jan Svejnar will have to win over two other parties, the Christian Democrats, and the Communists.

Jiri Paroubek and Jan Svejnar,  photo: CTK
Prague-born Jan Svejnar emigrated with his family from the former Czechoslovakia when he was seventeen. He has spent most of his life in the US, where he made a respected name for himself there as an economist advising successive governments. Though the majority of his career has taken place in America, Mr Svejnar's voice has not been absent from commentary on Czech politics. He was one of the main critics of the economic transformations of the 1990s that took place under Vaclav Klaus, who was then prime minister. He has also presented himself as a more liberal alternative to Klaus, also an economist, advocating deeper integration into the European Union and opposing flat tax.

Mr. Svejnar's international academic reputation is certainly something that speaks in his favour in the fight for presidential candidacy. Petr Just is a political analyst:

Petr Just
'I think people and politicians are seeking for someone who is known worldwide in the field that he is working. Mr Svejnar spent most of his professional practice at the American university and he became a very world-renowned economist. The President is a constitutional officer and personality who acts a lot in foreign policy, who attends foreign meetings and who represents the country abroad and therefore politicians are seeking those personalities who have the possibilities to attract foreign partners, foreign presidents.'

This isn't the first time that Mr Svejnar has put forward as a possible candidate for a position in government. After Mr Klaus' resignation in 1997 following the party financial scandals, then-president Vaclav Havel invited Mr Svejnar to lead an interim government. The problem then was that Svejnar didn't have Czech citizenship, and had to turn the offer down. Though citizenship is now no longer a problem, Mr Svejnar's image as a "foreigner" is something that could continue to haunt him. Petr Just again:

'People who left the country for some reason, especially before 1989 for political reasons, are still seen in some parts of Czech society as people who lost contact with their home country. People doubt that these people understand what is happening in the Czech Republic now, understand what are the current issues, the current problems to be solved, and so generally people who are emigrants, although they have Czech citizenship and can seek for offices in government, are in a difficult position as regards the point of view of the public and of many people.'

Jan Svejnar's perceived foreign status may make it difficult in particular for him to gain the support of the Communists. He may have to overcome this hurdle if he is to defeat Vaclav Klaus in the bicameral elections in February.