Czech parties struggle with first ever presidential primaries

Přemysl Sobotka, Evžen Tošenovský, Petr Nečas, photo: CTK

Less than a year before Czechs take to the polls to directly elect their president for the first time in history, some of the major political parties have begun choosing their candidates. However, both the ruling Civic Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats seem to struggle with the process: the former party’s most hopeful candidate quit the race before it even began, while one of the latter party’s picks is hesitant to run for them. Commentator Erik Best says this reflects the parties’ mixed feelings about direct presidential elections in the first place.

Jan Švejnar,  photo: CTK
“The Social Democrats started their primary debates this week, yet one of the participants – Jan Švejnar – has decided not to run on the Social Democrat ticket. So it’s a bit odd. You have one person very eager to become the candidate of the party and the other person is not interested at all in becoming their candidate, so they have made fools of themselves this week a little bit.

“The Civic Democrats aren’t that much better. Their most hopeful candidate, [lower house speaker] Miroslava Němcová decided to pull out at the last minute, and the two remaining candidates – Senate deputy speaker Přemysl Sobotka and MEP Evžen Tošenovský are not seen as very strong. Looking at it from this point, it seems that the two big parties are shooting themselves in the foot, which opens the way for the independent candidate Jan Fischer or perhaps even ex-prime minister Miloš Zeman.”

Why do you think that both the major parties seem to be unable to generate strong candidates?

“I think it’s a problem that originated back when they were passing the law on direct presidential elections. Neither of the two parties was that keen on passing it, but they got themselves into a position where they promised to do it and were under political pressure not to be the party that kills the bill. So they were never really that thrilled about it and now, this is also reflected in the process, because they are not thrilled about choosing a candidate.”

Přemysl Sobotka,  Evžen Tošenovský,  Petr Nečas,  photo: CTK
How important will these political machines be in the elections? Will a candidate with support from the major parties have better chances of getting elected?

“It depends largely on what the implementation of the law will be like, which has not been passed yet. I think there is going to be a lot of debate and contention among the major parties about how it should be worded and whether it actually gets passed. How they will behave in that respect will in my opinion affect the way the public perceives the candidates of the main parties. The problem so far has been that the public generally favours non-partisan candidates, someone like [former prime minister] Jan Fischer or potentially Jan Švejnar.”

These two candidates – Jan Fischer and Jan Švejnar – have topped opinion polls so far. Will Czechs look for someone consensual, in a contrast to the divisive Václav Klaus?

Jan Fischer,  photo: CTK
“That’s probably what everyone is hoping for and that’s the way candidates are going to present themselves. The TOP 09 candidate, Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who was the favourite for a while but now has almost been forgotten, certainly presents himself that way, as someone who sees things from a bit of a higher position and does not make judgemental calls on things, but serves as a moral figure.

“The question is if that person can actually be of any political significance. If you don’t have firm ideas and the public doesn’t know what you stand for, there is a question as to how much influence or authority the president would actually have.”