Jan Sokol: The man who could be president

Jan Sokol, foto: CTK

Jan Sokol, the presidential candidate of the Czech coalition government, will vie for the presidency with former Czech prime minister Vaclav Klaus in Friday's third attempt to elect a successor to Vaclav Havel. But Mr Sokol is not as well known as his competitor: while Mr Klaus served as prime minister of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 1997, Mr Sokol held some less prominent political offices in the 1990s, and spent most of the decade engaging in academic pursuits. So who is Jan Sokol?

Jan Sokol,  photo: CTK
Jan Sokol's last name is perhaps not the most appropriate metaphor for his presidential candidature. Sokol means "falcon" in Czech, and if anyone is the falcon in this race, then it is Vaclav Klaus, whose dexterity and skill has seen him rise to the top and dominate Czech politics in the past decade.

Less prominent, however, is Jan Sokol, the presidential candidate of the coalition government led by the Social Democrats. But he, too, has been involved in Czech politics in the past decade. Mr Sokol was a Civic Forum deputy and vice chairman of the Chamber of Nations in the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly from 1990 to 1992, and he served as education minister in the interim government of Josef Tosovsky in 1998.

The Czech prime minister Vladimir Spidla has said that he chose Jan Sokol as a presidential candidate because he believed that he would be able to stand above politics - in contrast to Mr Klaus, who remains the honorary chairman of the Civic Democrats. Jan Sokol is perceived as a skilful mediator and, like former President Vaclav Havel, a moral figure - but he emphasises that, unlike his predecessor, he does not want to preach morals to the Czech nation.

Mr Sokol is a Catholic, and was denied permission to attend university because of his religion. He has supported some ideas in the past that are not very popular in a society as secular as the Czech: in Wednesday's edition of the Mlada fronta Dnes newspaper, for example, he says that it was an error for him to support the introduction of compulsory catechism in schools and the banning of abortion.

Although he no longer holds to such ideas, he still recognises that his views on human rights and social equality are inspired by his faith. He has said that, if elected president, he would emphasise care and fairness in Czech society, in contrast to the extreme individualism that has characterised the transition period. Jan Sokol has also said that, as president, he would like to see education and the judicial system in the Czech Republic reformed so that they match the standards of the European Union.

Although he is the presidential candidate of a part of the left side of the Czech political spectrum, Jan Sokol says that he is not a leftist. He was not an active dissident during the communist period, but he did sign the Charter 77 human rights manifesto, of which his father-in-law Jan Patocka - the famous dissident and philosopher - was the first spokesman.

Jan Sokol has since 2000 been the dean of the Faculty of Humanities of Charles University, but his road to academia was not so simple. From the ages of fifteen to twenty-eight he worked as a goldsmith, clockmaker and precision mechanic. In 1967 he received his BA in mathematics from Charles University, and from 1964 until 1990 he was a research fellow at the Institute of Mathematical Machines in Prague. He received his PhD in philosophy in 1995, and became a full professor of philosophy at Charles University in 1996. He has written five books and hundreds of articles, and he speaks seven languages.