Klaus and Švejnar to face off in presidential debate

Jan Švejnar and Václav Klaus

For the first time in the country’s history the Czech Republic will see presidential candidates face off in a (most-likely) televised public debate. Incumbent Václav Klaus originally resisted the idea on the grounds such a contest made little sense within the Czech system, in which the president is elected by Parliament and not by direct vote. But late last week Mr Klaus changed his mind and as a result on January 29th he and challenger Jan Švejnar will field questions from lawmakers in the Senate.

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
When Czech-American economist Jan Švejnar first entered this year’s presidential race he was relatively unknown to most Czechs. But that has since changed. A tour of the country this January has seen his popularity grow – and grow in bounds – which could be one reason why President Klaus changed his mind on an idea he flatly refused earlier: to meet his challenger in debate. In the president’s case, some might say it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. Earlier, his refusal was criticised as a sign of political arrogance. Now some have stated that by accepting the challenge, the president lost his nerve. Political analyst Jan Bureš suggests neither view is fully accurate:

“I think it’s important to stress that Mr Klaus rejected a specially-televised debate and this is something different: a debate which will take place first and foremost in the upper house – albeit broadcast by Czech TV. In my view the decision was a correct one as it will allow the public to get to know both candidates’ views better and to see how well they are able to perform against each other. Above all, I think such a debate can only help the Czech political culture.”

There’s no question the debate represents something of a political “first”: the only time in the past such a debate was held, it was not between presidential candidates but between party leaders. Some will continue to question the debate’s value (as the public does not impact the vote one way or the other) but even there, says Jan Bureš, the debate might still make a difference. In his view, a strong performance by either candidate could still tip the scales among the country’s lawmakers.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
“I think that the debate could still have an impact on some undecided MPs and senators. We don’t know for sure how many of them there are, but we do know there are some. Whether Mr Švejnar will impress with his willingness to discuss issues and give concrete answers or whether we’ll see a shining performance from Mr Klaus, I think they both have the ability to impact undecided legislators. In my view, the debate will very important: we know that the amount of undecided, especially in the Chamber of Deputies, is fairly high.”

As it stands, so far lawmakers from the Green Party and the opposition Social Democrats have backed Mr Švejnar, while the right-of-centre Civic Democrats have pledged support for Mr Klaus. In question are the Christian Democrats, who appear at least partly split over the candidates, or the third-largest party, the Communists. Their votes could still tip the election in either man’s favour. Even so, Mr Klaus is still being considered the hands-on favourite.