Klaus celebrates re-election as Czech president after vote marked by controversy

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

Václav Klaus was re-elected president of the Czech Republic on Friday. Mr Klaus had been the favourite from the outset, but his re-election still took two three-round elections, with deputies and senators in session for a total of nearly 25 hours. And the elections were not without controversy; there were allegations of bribery, corruption, even mafia tactics, and a great deal of strong language on all sides.

Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Minutes after being re-elected as president, Václav Klaus thanked deputies and senators for a “very dignified” vote. We’ve all learned a little after the last one, he said on Friday, in a reference to the obstruction and bickering that characterized the previous weekend’s first election.

This time out his Civic Democrats, evidently confident of success, accepted the other parties’ demand for a public vote, meaning things went much more smoothly. Shortly after Mr Klaus’s victory was announced, the party’s Jan Zahradil said he was satisfied with the outcome.

Jan Zahradil
“I think this is something we all hoped and expected. Of course it was harder than we expected the first time. I think that the first vote was a bit tense, but today it seemed to be OK from the procedural side. Both chambers of parliament showed today that the parliamentarians are able to elect a president of the republic in a rather…dignified way.”

One hundred and forty-one of the 279 lawmakers present raised their hands for Mr Klaus in the third round (as they had in the previous two), meaning he won by two votes. One of those votes came from MP Evžen Snítilý, a Social Democrat. He had been summarily expelled from his party’s deputies group earlier on Friday for going against its policy of supporting the challenger Jan Švejnar. Social Democrats chairman Jiří Paroubek put the "blame" for Mr Klaus’s re-election at his door.

Photo: CTK
“I think that the main factor was political corruption, because the difference was very close, practically one vote. And this one vote was from former Social Democrat deputy Mr Snítilý, who is now a supporter of Mr Klaus and a voter of Mr Klaus – and it was the reason.”

The absence on Friday of one of Green Party deputy Olga Zubová, who said she was ill, also helped Václav Klaus win a second term, as the Greens were backing Mr Švejnar. The party’s deputy chairman Ondřej Liška said he too was exasperated by those who had switched allegiances late in the day.

Martin Bursík and Ondřej Liška,  photo: CTK
“I can hardly find the words to say how sorry I am that we politicians are all giving such a bad message to the public. I do not know what was behind the change in opinion of Mr Snítilý, I do not know who sent these letters with bullets…I think politicians should stay clear, be open about their motivation. Mr Snítilý, but also others who changed their opinion in the last few seconds, have not been able yet to say openly why they changed their opinion. I think this will have consequences for their political careers.”

Back in the pro-Klaus camp, the Civic Democrats’ Jan Zahradil said the outcome of the election is good news for both the government and the country.

“I think it’s a good sign, because first of all it means the stability of the current government. Any instability – and I feel any election of a challenger to Mr Klaus would pose such a danger – could lead to instability for the whole state, which in the light of our upcoming presidency of the European Union would not be a very good situation. I think this is good proof that the Czech Republic is on track, that no internal political crisis is underway, and that we’ll be able to fulfil our foreign duties.”

Mirek Topolánek and Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Perhaps there is no political crisis, but a strain has been put on relations between the biggest and smallest parties in the governing coalition, the Civic Democrats and the Greens. The coalition agreement does not cover presidential elections. Nevertheless, the Civic Democrats were nevertheless furious with the stinging attacks senior Greens made on Mr Klaus, who is sceptical about global warming, during the first election. They were also incensed by the Greens’ eleventh hour switch to backing a public vote. Civic Democrats first deputy chairman Pavel Bém has been one of their coalition partner’s strongest critics.

“There is no question that the Greens did not support too much…sort of the stabilisation of the government itself. But this is the reality and I can hardly say anything else – there is no alternative towards the future, there is just the three-party coalition and we have to respect that.”

Jan Švejnar and Václav Klaus,  photo: CTK
For his part, the Green Party’s Ondřej Liška said the hotly disputed election will not have a long-term impact on the working of the government.

“We were very open about the presidential election for months or almost a year – actually since the negotiations on the coalition agreement…And I think the coalition will stay as it is, I think the emotions will go away and I think the coalition will continue to work.”

Finally, given all the bitterness, horse-trading and accusations of corruption, isn’t it time to change the system and allow the Czech public to decide the next president? On this question Social Democrat Jiří Paroubek and Civic Democrat Jan Zahradil were in rare agreement.

Jan Švejnar and Jiří Paroubek,  photo: CTK
Jiří Paroubek: “I hope the next election of the Czech president will be a direct election and will be an election of all the citizens of the country.”

Jan Zahradil: “I think so. Personally speaking I have always supported a popular vote, even before the last elections in 2003. I have publicly said several times that we should shift from an indirect vote to a direct vote. We shall see whether our experience from last week and from this week will lead Parliament to change the constitution.”

The apparent impetus for a public vote (other parties have also expressed openness to the idea) could evaporate once the dust has settled on the elections just gone. In any case, it is a matter for the future. For now, Václav Klaus is looking forward to being sworn in as president for the second time. By the end of his term in 2013, Mr Klaus, a former finance minister and later prime minister, will have been in the forefront of the Czech political scene for an incredible 23 years.