Jiří Dienstbier – left-wing candidate with clean record and strong social values

Jiří Dienstbier, photo: Filip Jandourek

A rising star of Czech left-wing politics, Social Democrat Senator Jiří Dienstbier promises to be a credible and consistent president. He presents himself as a politician with strong social values and as a leader who would bring the country into the mainstream of the European Union. According to the polls, he is not among the favourites for president. But that could change due to his popularity among left-leaning voters and some civic groups.

Jiří Dienstbier, photo: Filip Jandourek
One of the country’s most popular politicians for several years, Jiří Dienstbier is the youngest candidate in the Czech presidential race. He was born in Washington DC in 1969 where his father Jiří was a correspondent for Czechoslovak Radio. However, Dienstbier Sr lost the job after he objected to the Soviet occupation of his country. He became a dissident and one of the first signatories of the human rights manifesto Charter 77. Jiří Dienstbier Jr says his father’s activities and principles had a deep impact on him even as a child.

“I grew up in an environment which taught me that it is always right to fight for your principles and for what you think is right even though there is a risk it might hurt you.”

Although relatively young, Jiří Dienstbier is no newcomer to politics. While still a student he became a member of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly. After several years in local politics he joined the Social Democrats and was the party’s candidate for mayor of Prague in 2010. A year later, he won a seat in the Senate previously held by his father.

Mr. Dienstbier says the president should be above party politics. But he also says this does not mean that he or she should come into office with no clear values.

“I believe that 23 years after the fall of communism, our country is again not thriving, to quote the classic line [a quote from Václav Havel in 1990]. That needs to be changed. I would like live in a society – and do something to achieve this – which offers everyone a chance for a decent life; that means, among other things, accessible health care, education, and other services.”

Jiří Dienstbier Sr., photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
In foreign policy, Mr Dienstbier shares his party’s pro-European views. He also promises to be more consensual and less nationalist than the out-going Václav Klaus.

“I would be a president who would try and moderate public debate about the essential issues such as foreign policy. The Czech Republic now suffers because its representatives are unable to reach a consensus on the basic principles, which makes us look bad. A country with no clear idea of what its interests are can hardly pursue them abroad and in the EU.”

Jiří Dienstbier’s strength is that his presidential bid could appeal to many voters disgruntled with the austerity and tax hikes of the current right-of-centre government. His unsullied record in politics also makes him popular with a number of anti-corruption groups and initiatives. But he is not the only candidate with a strong social message; his main competitor for votes on the left is ex-prime minister Miloš Zeman, who ranks among the favourites.