Jiří Pehe: divisions in Czech society will take years to heal

Jiří Pehe, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

Miloš Zeman’s victory in the country’s first direct presidential election has highlighted some deep divisions in Czech society. A large part of the future president’s support came from voters in rural areas and small towns, while his rival, Karel Schwarzenberg, won the backing of city-dwellers, higher income groups, and young people. In this special edition of One on One, my guest Jiří Pehe discusses these divisions, Miloš Zeman’s appeal to Czech voters – and the main factors behind his triumph.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
“Well, I think that the main reasons were not so much related to the left-right division in Czech society as many had expected because quite frankly, from this point of view, the result was very tight. If the left-right division and opposition against the current government was the main issue then Zeman would have won with a much larger margin. I think there were other issues; personalities, cultural issues and so on.

“I think that in fact Mr Schwarzenberg probably lost this race because he wasn’t really very well prepared to face Zeman in one particular area in which I think he should have been prepared for: the issue of the Beneš decrees and the German question. Surprisingly, Mr Schwarzenberg wasn’t prepared for that.”

What does the result say about Czech society? Miloš Zeman won in practically all of the districts when you look at a map of the results with the exception of course of big urban centres and a few rural districts. What is the appeal Miloš Zeman’s appeal for Czechs?

“One area where Mr Zeman certainly appealed to a lot of voters, although as I said it didn’t decide the elections, was his leftist political orientation. We could dispute this claim but this is how many people saw him, and given the current governments extremely low level of popularity, this certainly gave him a very solid base for a victory.

“Then there were cultural issues where I think Mr Zeman understands better than Mr Schwarzenberg that there are certain issues which are very sensitive in Czech society. The majority of Czech society, older people especially, has not really overcome some historical traumas. If you go into these traumas then you have an advantage. Overall, I think it says two things; one is negative one is positive. On the negative side: yes, Mr Zeman was still able to win with the help of very low attacks, xenophobia, nationalism and so on, and this shows that there is a constituency for this in Czech society.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
“On the other hand Mr Schwarzenberg, who is the chairman of a very unpopular government party associated with the current government which has a popularity of somewhere around 10%, was able to win 45% of the vote. That means that a good part of Czech society, in my opinion, is not really prepared to accept the kind of rhetoric that Mr Zeman used. For me, that is a pleasant surprise because I personally expected that Mr Schwarzenberg would be defeated with a larger margin given the overall state of Czech society. I’m sure that 10 years ago, Mr Zeman would have won with maybe 70% to 30%. So we are getting there and I think that more and more people, especially young people, are not ready to accept this kind of politics and this kind of low campaigning.”

In his acceptance speech Mr Zeman said that he would be the voice of all Czechs. Many commentators expect him to at least try to overcome these divisions between richer city dwellers and poorer people living in the countryside. How wide do you think the divide is and do you think that he’s able to overcome it?

“Well there are several divides - not only one divide unfortunately. There’s a divide which we can trace on the left-right axis and then there is a cultural divide which sort of runs across this other divide that has to do with Czech history, with a certain kind of populism. I think that especially this second divide will be very difficult to overcome, simply because it was predominantly Mr Zeman’s camp, and Mr Zeman himself who used a kind of strategy and tactics in his campaign and vocabulary which is really highly divisive. I think that many people and especially more educated people even feel offended by this. They feel offended that the candidate who used lies and a strategy to exploit Mr Schwarzenberg’s supposed lack of ‘Czechness’ and anti-German feelings was the candidate won. For many people this is very difficult to accept. I suspect that this will take a long time to heal, if ever, and maybe there will be a very strong opposition in certain parts of intellectual circles and cultural circles against Mr Zeman throughout his presidency no matter what he does, simply because most of those people will not be willing to accept him as their president.”

Václav Klaus,  photo: Filip Jandourek
What can we expect from President Miloš Zeman? He is sometimes described as a sort of follower to Václav Klaus who indeed supported him at least indirectly in the vote. Can we expect 5 more years of the style of presidency that Václav Klaus came up with?

“There are similarities and differences between Mr Klaus and Mr Zeman. They are both similar in their personal styles although one could argue that Mr Klaus was more patrician. Both of them are really abrasive, aggressive politicians who exploit various issues to their own advantage and if I should sum up their similarities then I would say that the main political programme of Mr Klaus, is Mr Klaus, and the main political programme of Miloš Zeman is Miloš Zeman. Everything else is secondary.

“However if we talk about the differences, then of course Mr Zeman is more leftist than Mr Klaus - he is certainly more pro-European. These are the main differences and at least in his rhetoric, Zeman says that he wants to fight corruption. It is of course strange to hear these words from someone who himself is surrounded by people who are at least expected to have something to do with corruption, but still, at least he says that. So there are some differences and in that respect, Mr Zeman could be a different president and perhaps a better president. However there’s still another area, and that is the willingness of these two presidents to interfere with the work of the government and there it seems that Mr Zeman intends to be even more proactive, to intrude more and interfere more with the work of the government.

“This may create constitutional problems but at this point we cannot really say what kind of problems. But just the fact that he promises to visit the government very often and to argue with the government – that is a minefield which especially in the case of the government, which is not inline with his political views could backfire.

Jiří Pehe,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“I am personally very curious to see what will happen when Mr Zeman takes over the presidency and starts exercising his powers, which are not small, in the area of foreign policy and I can anticipate a clash between him and his competitor from the presidential election. Mr Schwarzenberg is responsible for foreign policy in this government and this may be the first major clash between the new president and the government.”

Mr Zeman’s time will also come when, after the general elections which are scheduled for 2014, he will be in charge of appointing the next prime minister. It is generally expected that the Social Democrats will win because of the unpopularity of the current government and the parties in it. But do you think that he will drop the things from the past? When he left the Social Democrat party he didn’t leave on good terms and there was a huge grudge he felt towards those people who now run the party. Do you think this is over or do you expect him to seek revenge?

“Unfortunately I think it’s not really important what Mr Zeman says in this respect because his victory will strengthen his supporters in the social democratic party. So even if he didn’t do anything, his supporters in the party will try to maybe not immediately take over the party, but they will certainly seek more influence. If, in the next year, the party is overridden with internal conflicts and there will be a lot of in-fighting, and maybe in the end supporters of Mr Zeman will actually gain the upper-hand. That may not actually help the Social Democratic party.

"We know from the past that anytime there were major conflicts within the Social Democrats, it was the Communist party that benefited from this and this means that we may not see an overrunning of the Social Democratic party in 2014. If the party is in turmoil then it will not only be the Communists who will benefit from it but probably also some of the right of centre parties, so I wouldn’t say that the victory of the supposed leftist candidate is good news for the social democratic party as such.”