Jan Fischer – popular technocrat with blot on his past

Jan Fischer, photo: archive of the Czech Government

One of the favourites in the Czech presidential race is former prime minister Jan Fischer. For his supporters, he proved himself as the leader of a caretaker government a few years ago. He is seen as a safe pair of hands and a man who would rock the boat less than the divisive incumbent, Václav Klaus. But for others, Jan Fischer would be unacceptable because he was a member of the pre-1989 Communist Party.

Jan Fischer,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
For many Czechs, Jan Fischer’s greatest asset in the race to become president is that he is not really a politician. Even though he does have experience of the top executive job, the presidential vote sees him actually standing for election for the first time. And Mr. Fischer is well aware of that: in a country where people are increasingly discontent with politicians and their scandals, he says his ambition is nothing less than to transform Czech politics.

“Just like the majority of people in this country, I am not happy with the state of Czech politics, and I want to change it. I want to return decency to politics, renew people’s trust in it, and open it up for them. I want to return responsibility and professionalism to Czech politics.”

For most of his career, Mr. Fischer was a statistician who probably never thought of running for public office. But in 2009, he was chosen to become the head of a caretaker government following the collapse of the previous cabinet, toppled in the middle of the country’s EU presidency. As prime minister, he demonstrated an ability that gained him lasting popularity: he was able to avoid open conflicts. His critics consider say he lacks genuine policies. But Jan Fischer defines himself as a centrist.

“I don’t like to place myself on the right or on the left. I would say I’m well positioned in the centre. I also think the presidential election will not be a decision between the left and the right; it will be a decision on whether to leave Czech politics as it is, or whether voters will decide to change it. I have enough expertise to be able to adopt proposals coming from a right-wing or a left-wing government, and even discuss them with the opposition.”

Jan Fischer,  photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
An active member of the Jewish community, Mr. Fischer could become the first Jewish president of the country. But one thing that could thwart his presidential hopes is the fact that he joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1980. He says he did so to be able to perform his job, and has publicly apologized.

“I rejected the first offer to join the party which was a condition for me to stay on the university as a teacher. But six years later, another offer came and I accepted it. It’s of course not anything that would make me proud. But it’s also something one has to deal with himself.”

Jan Fischer quit a lucrative job at the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to run for president. His campaign is well-organized, and he comes out first in most of the polls. In the second round of voting, his chances of becoming president could perhaps be even higher, as many voters are likely to support him instead of some of the more controversial candidates he might face in the run-off.