Elections again!

Jan Švejnar and Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
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Anyone who remembers the Czech presidential election five years ago will know it took not three rounds but three attempts to elect Václav Klaus, the former head of the right-of-centre Civic Democratic Party, as the country’s president. But he did win in the end. Following dissident and playwright Václav Havel, Mr Klaus brought a pragmatic no-nonsense style, to the Castle, promising to remain above partisan politics but not pulling any punches when it came to issues such as global warming and European integration. Now Mr Klaus’s term is at an end. He is widely seen as the hands-on favorite for a second one, but even now winning the election, determined by 281 legislators, may not be easy.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
Weeks ahead of the vote, internet news sites are slicing and dicing possible lines of voting among MPs and senators. Although most scenarios favor the incumbent, the possibility of an upset by his challenger, Czech-American economist Jan Švejnar, can not be ruled out.

It has to be said a Švejnar win would be surprising. But even should he lose, many analysts already agree the public and the country’s political culture have benefited from his campaign. In a scant few weeks Mr Švejnar has brought something “new” to Czech politics in view of alternatives: a fresh style of looking at issues and an ease in approaching the public. Not long ago the economics professor and former advisor to Václav Havel was largely unknown here, even after receiving backing from the largest opposition party. His candidacy lacked momentum; that’s now changed. The challenger closed the recognition gap and a poll now puts him a nose-to-nose, indeed a nose ahead, of Mr Klaus in terms of popularity. And everyone knows just how popular Mr Klaus has been.

Having raised his profile substantially, Mr Švejnar has been able to strategically force the incumbent into something of a corner: Mr Klaus finally agreed to a televised debate in the Czech Senate (on January 29 to be broadcast by Czech TV24). It will hardly be a bombastic affair, as it will not even involve all senators but lawmakers from just one party (the Social Democrats).

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
There are also indications Mr Klaus will try to cast the debate not as a “head-to-head” event, but simply a question period during which both candidates will happen to be present. Hopefully the meeting will still provide an opportunity for the public to see both men on important issues, from the EU to the Czech EU presidency to US missile defense. The candidates should sweat a little before the cameras, shouldn’t they, running for the presidency? Even if it’s a largely a symbolic post.

Of course, it is not the public who will decide in the end. It will come down once again come down to the country’s legislators and that means various scenarios are now being considered. This we know more or less for certain: the Civic Democrats will back Klaus, the Greens and the opposition Social Democrats, Švejnar. Everybody else holds a proverbial wrench to throw in the works. Both the Christian Democrats and the Communists could tip the scales one way or the other or act as spoilers. What does that mean for the rest of us? If nothing else, excitement and uncertainty: there’s beauty in the upcoming election being difficult to predict. February 8 may produce a winner or may prove inconclusive, paving the way for repeat attempts. In the countdown to the main event expect a lot of anticipation over who will be the country’s next president.