Czech-American economist enters the presidential race

Jan Svejnar, photo: CTK

Czech-American economist and long-term exile in the United States Jan Svejnar on Friday officially announced his decision to run for president. The 55 year old professor of economics has emerged as the sole rival of incumbent president Vaclav Klaus, who is running for re-election and is considered a hot favourite in the February presidential elections. What is Jan Svejnar offering and what are his chances of beating Vaclav Klaus - a seasoned politician with a strong political force behind him?

Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Just weeks ago President Klaus’ re-election to the country’s top post appeared almost certain. He had the backing of the Civic Democrats, the strongest party in Parliament, and the efforts of the other parliamentary parties to agree on a joint candidate – a so-called “anti-Klaus” – appeared to be failing miserably. Now, at the eleventh hour economist Jan Svejnar has stepped into the limelight and expressed his readiness to take on the man who many consider “unbeatable”.

“I want to be the kind of president who will consolidate the country and represent it with dignity abroad, I want to be president of an open, modern, dynamic, and self-confident Czech Republic.”

Jan Svejnar,  photo: CTK
Mr. Svejnar himself appeared extremely self-confident as he faced the cameras, bringing what many described as a whiff of American-style politics to the Czech Republic. Although under Czech law the president is elected by Parliament, Jan Svejnar said he would travel around the country to meet people and he challenged his rival Vaclav Klaus to a televised debate, an offer that President Klaus promptly declined on the grounds that, unlike Mr. Svejnar, he really did not need the publicity. In fighting spirit on Friday, Jan Svejnar took a swipe at Vaclav Klaus, telling Czechs it was time for change.

“It is time to turn over a new leaf – to put an end to this ‘black and white’ vision of the world and to realize that people with a different view are not necessarily our enemies.”

Despite the show of self confidence, Jan Svejnar’s chances of success are limited. As things stand both candidates have one strong party behind them – Vaclav Klaus the right-wing Civic Democrats, Mr. Svejnar the left-wing Social Democrats and the smaller Green Party. Although neither candidate currently has enough support to win the vote, political analysts think that Vaclav Klaus is in a better position to win support from the ranks of the Christian Democrats and the Communists, who are as yet undecided. Political analyst Jiri Pehe predicts how the two parties are likely to behave:

“I think that as far as the Christian Democrats are concerned they will remain divided over whom to vote for and no amount of lobbying will change their minds. As far as the Communists are concerned I think that at the end of the day the Communists will vote for whichever candidate will be more advantageous for them – and that in my opinion is Mr. Klaus. Not only is he closer to the Communists on some foreign policy issues – we know the Communists are not exactly euro-optimists, and they share the same opinions on the Sudeten- German question and other matters – but also I think that for the Communists Mr. Klaus is the better candidate simply because he polarizes the political scene. He basically pushes the Social Democratic Party into one camp with the Communist Party and that is something that the Communists need if they want to survive politically. Mr. Svejnar would probably re-unite the political centre –i.e. the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Greens – and that would be a danger to the Communists because they would remain isolated. So if the Communists vote for Mr. Klaus, based on these calculations, I think that he will be elected.”

So your guess is that Mr. Klaus will come out of these elections victorious?

“Yes, I would say that Mr. Svejnar’s chances are very slim. In percentage terms I would say it is 95 percent for Mr. Klaus and 5% for Mr. Svejnar.”

The presidential vote will take place on February 8 and the head of state will be elected by secret ballot in a joint session by both houses of Parliament.