Czech presidential elections: what next?

Jan Švejnar and Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

Last weekend, in a protracted and often heated joint session of Parliament, Czech lawmakers failed to elect either incumbent Václav Klaus or his opponent Jan Švejnar the new head of state. With the second Czech presidential election fast approaching, a number of key issues remain unresolved. In today’s Talking Point, we examine why last Friday’s election failed to produce a result, the procedural wrangling that continues to dominate the process, and what we can expect from next Friday’s vote.

Jan Švejnar and Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Last week’s election not only failed to produce a result but also resulted in much debate about the entire election process. The drawn out procedure in which ten hours were spent arguing over how to conduct the vote, was carried live on Czech Television, and ratings figures suggest that Czechs tuned in in droves. Despite this, many Czechs still feel that this election is being conducted behind closed doors. We hit the streets to gauge some opinions:

“What do you think of the way that the Czech presidential election has been conducted so far?”

“It is a comedy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It is hard to explain what I feel about it but I am so disappointed. I think it is not a democratic way. It is just like the communist era.”

“A comedy.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because they are blaming each other, one person says that it is like this, the second person says it is like that. The presidential candidates, I’m actually quite sorry for them.”

“I think it is kind of funny because they have elections about how they are going to elect them. It’s really weird that they can just argue about how they can elect the president.”

Photo: CTK
“Little bit crazy!!”

“We, it looks like we have a political culture which demonstrates itself in this way. So it is how it is and I don’t really think it is a big disaster or a tragedy or anything like that.”

“So you just think it is the normal way of doing things?”

“It could be better, it could be more let’s say civilised, but I wouldn’t see it as a political disaster or anything.”

 Mirek Topolánek and Ondřej Liška,  photo: CTK
The 2008 Czech presidential elections formally began at 10am on 8th February. Yet it wasn’t till around 9 PM that two rounds of voting finally took place. In these rounds neither candidate managed to secure the required majority in both houses of the Czech parliament. The third round of voting was held on Saturday afternoon. The final result left Klaus one vote shot of victory with 139 votes to Švejnar’s 113. By then, it had become clear than a number of MPs had left the session for health reasons, while the communist party chose to abstain from the vote, making it impossible for either candidate to secure a majority of votes.

Despite the end result, Education Minister and Green party MP Ondřej Liška maintains that the result showed that the challenger is continuing to build momentum:

Vlastimil Tlustý  (middle),  photo: CTK
“I think the outcome shows that Mr Švejnar has managed to find wide-scale support, much wider than the Civic Democrats and Mr Klaus ever expected. We will see what the second and third round will bring but for now, it’s a moral victory for Mr Švejnar.”

On the other side of the political fence, Civic Democrat MP Vlastimil Tlustý expressed disappointment over both the end result and the overall election process:

“My first reaction is that it is a shame. We didn’t expect such a…I don’t know how to say it…procedure or terrible two days. So there is no result, and it doesn’t look well.”

Sociologist Ivan Gabal believes that both candidates are still very much in the race:

Ivan Gabal
“I think that these are two very different candidates, so it is difficult to say who is strongest. More chances are allocated to current president Václav Klaus. However, the challenging candidate, Mr Švejnar, did an incredibly effective job both on the public opinion side as well as in parliament to gain support. So we basically saw an election with two equally strong candidates.”

Yet most pollsters still firmly favour Mr. Klaus, with many Civic Democrat lawmakers continuing to believe that their candidate can succeed in a secret ballot, in which stray MPs and senators can favour their candidate without fear of retribution. So are all these protracted machinations an unprecedented and unwelcome by-product of the Czech political system?

“I consider it an absolutely consistent and regular part of the election procedure. We could see a very sophisticated battle between the two camps where the question of a secret or public vote was of major significance because there was suspicion that some MPs from the opposition side were subject to horse trading and in a secret vote, that they would vote against their colleagues and their parties. Due to this, the coalition supporting Mr Švejnar put a public vote on the table and they undertook a lot of regular parliamentary procedures and work to get their way – and they won. I think, due to the fact that they won on the public vote issue, Václav Klaus was not re-elected in this first election.”

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Indeed, the smaller political parties are proving to be crucial in this election. On the one hand, there is the Christian Democratic Party, which remains split between both candidates. Suspicions abound that key members of this party may now trade their support for incumbent president Václav Klaus in exchange for support for key legislative issues regarding, for instance, church restitution claims.

The other major player in this election will be the Communist party. In a widely predicted move, the communists abstained from the third round of the presidential vote. At present, the party remains split between reformers, who are content to support Švejnar, and an old guard which continues to press for the nomination of an alternative candidate. Political analyst Petr Just believes that the communists are facing a pivotal moment in their post-1989 existence:

Jan Švejanar,  photo: CTK
“What I’ve heard is that there is some kind of split in the communist party of Bohemia and Moravia today. There is a group that still wants to support Jan Švejnar, but there is also a group that doesn’t want to support him. The issue is that if the communists support Švejnar, they still wouldn’t probably have enough votes to push him through the presidential elections. Because if we count that they have around…26…he got 113…OK…I don’t think that even with the communist vote, Jan Švejnar would have enough to be elected president. Because during the third round, he received 113 votes and communists have 26 more, so this would take us up to 139, which is the same amount that Václav Klaus received – but without the two Christian Democrats who were in hospital and they said they would elect Václav Klaus.”

Communist chairman Vojtěch Filip and Jana Bobošíková,  photo: CTK
While stray Christian Democrat votes remain crucial for both candidates, it will be the communist vote that will remain crucial for any candidate seeking to defeat President Klaus. On Monday, the communists presented a list of five potential candidates that they would be prepared to support: ombudsman Otakar Motejl, the Head of the Czech Constitutional Court Pavel Rychtecký, former foreign minister Jiří Dienstbier, Euro MP Jana Bobošíková and the head of the Czech Science Academy Václav Pačes. Asides from Mz Bobošíková, all four of the other candidates have publicly declined to run. So why is the communist party continuing to press the issue of an alternative candidate to Jan Švejanar?

Petr Just
“I would consider it as a very erroneous behaviour or strategy and they felt uncomfortable being part of a coalition that was behind Jan Švejnar and I think that they needed to show a kind of difference or distance from Jan Švejnar. We’ll see what their ultimate aim really is, but currently, their strategy is bankrupt because most of the candidates refuse their proposal.”

Michael Kraus, an advisor to the Jan Švejnar team, acknowledges the role the communist factor will play in these elections:

“The communist party stands before a historic choice. They have stated that they will under no circumstances support the current president, so the question as to whether they want to step forward and assume a measure of responsibility and give their support to Jan Švejnar, whom they acknowledge is someone they still consider a candidate, that is a decision they will have to make. Because if they nominate anyone else, or if they pursue some other tactics - if they support that the election be held in secret - in effect they will do what they claim they don’t want to do, elect Mr. Klaus.”

The deadline for the nomination of an alternative candidate for the second candidate is midnight Tuesday. Reports suggest that the communists will ultimately not propose an alternative candidate. Whether that means that this party can now unite behind Jan Švejnar remains to be seen.