Marek Hilšer: The activist and brain tumour specialist who’s running for president

Marek Hilšer, photo: archive of Marek Hilšer

Though the next Czech presidential elections don’t take place until the start of 2018, Marek Hilšer has already thrown his hat into the ring as a candidate. A doctor by profession, the 40-year-old is perhaps best known for his eye-catching civic activism, such as when – protesting Russia’s treatment of Ukraine – he and a colleague stripped to the waist and held up NATO and EU flags at the Office of the Government. When we spoke I asked Hilšer to tell me a little about his background.

Marek Hilšer, photo: archive of Marek Hilšer
“I was born in Chomutov, a city in northern Bohemia. I studied at a gymnazium there and after that I decided to study political scientist at Charles University in Prague.

“But after my first experiences with politics, I decided to study medicine. So now I’m working as a teacher and a scientist at the First Faculty of Medicine at Charles University.”

What’s your specialisation?

“We work on research into brain tumours.”

If you were involved in politics earlier in your life and didn’t like it, why are you going back to it now?

“Because now I feel it’s time to go into politics.

“When I was a young man – I was 23 – and finishing political science, I didn’t feel like I had enough life experience to go into politics straight away.

“I always wanted to be free and independent in politics.

“So I decided to study medicine, so that I would have some job that I could always go back to.”

In recent years you have been involved in a number of political activities. Can you tell us about some of them?

“Yes. I was always a zoon politikon and politics attracted me, somehow.

“For example, during my political science studies I worked in Parliament. I had an internship so I worked as an assistant to a deputy.

“Then when I studied medicine I was involved in academic politics, as a senator of the Academic Senate. I became the chairman of the Academic Senate of our faculty

“Also as an activist we organised a demonstration against the privatisation of faculty hospitals, which we didn’t agree with. And so on and so on.”

But also in recent years you have been involved in protests against Russia’s actions in Crimea. Could you tell us a bit about that, please?

Maidan, Ukraine, 2014
“It wasn’t exactly against Russia’s actions in Crimea but in general about its actions against Ukraine.

“When I saw the Maidan I felt that the people who were protesting there wanted to change the politics in their country.

“They wanted to better their lives, they were going against oligarchy and corruption and so on.

“And this situation reminded me a lot of the situation in 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

“So when Russia entered Ukraine to suppress this movement, I felt that we must say something.”

And you said it in a quite radical way by taking off your shirt at the Office of the Government.

“I think it was not very radical. I had the experience in my activist life that when we wanted to promote some thoughts and wrote some petitions and so on, nobody paid attention.

“Then one day a friend of ours organised a happening, just putting on some special clothes, and there were suddenly a lot of journalists.

“We wanted for somebody to give attention to our ideas, so we decided to do this form of protest.

“We went to the Office of the Government saying, Premier, be brave.

“At that time there was a decision as to whether to support sanctions against Russia or not.

“We wanted our government to show compassion to Ukraine, to the Ukrainian people. That’s why we wrote on our bodies, Premier, stay brave.”

And you were inspired by Femem, the women who take their shirts off, is that right?

Marek Hilšer (left) in the Office of the Government, photo: ČT24
“Kind of.”

Otherwise, do you have any political idols? Are there politicians you look up to, or people you regard as your political heroes?

“In today’s politics I don’t have any political hero.

“But in some ways I like our first president, Masaryk. I wouldn’t say he’s my hero but he followed some principles that I like.”

For instance?

“For instance, he was a man who always stood up for the truth, even if it was against the majority. He knew that it in the long term it brings results.”

The presidential elections aren’t until the beginning of 2018. Why have you already, so early, announced that you are standing?

“Because I have a disadvantage – I am a relatively unknown person and I need a longer time to present myself and my ideas to the public.”

How are you planning to reach the public?

“First, I have announced my strong decision to participate in the election.

“After that I want to go on my campaign bus around the Czech Republic and present myself. And then we will see.”

And your campaign bus is an ambulance?

“It’s a kind of ambulance, yes.”

What’s your political platform? Are you left-wing, right-wing, centrist?

“I’m centrist. I think a president should be in the centre.

“I think when there are a lot of leftist ideas, he should go a little bit to the right, and when there are a lot of right-wing ideas, he should go a bit to the left. That’s my conviction.”

Would you be a kind of activist president? Or would you be more of a kind of figurehead, a symbol, and less actively involved in politics? For example the current president, Miloš Zeman, is very politically active and is in the newspapers every day?

Miloš Zeman, photo: The Office of the President of the Czech Republic
“And is he an activist?”

That’s not for me to say.

“I know… I want to be a president who will strictly follow the constitution.”

One thing I have to ask you is, Are you serious? Do you think you seriously have a chance of becoming the president of the Czech Republic?

“I’m serious about my decision. And I believe we can do a lot of things. We can speak a lot, we can put forward ideas. And we will see what happens.”

Miloš Zeman hasn’t announced yet if he will be standing against you for the presidency in 2018. But generally speaking what’s your view of Mr. Zeman?

“I decided that I don’t want to speak a lot about Miloš Zeman.

“I have written some articles about him but as a candidate I want to concentrate on my programme.

“I would like the campaign to be a gentlemanly campaign, or a campaign between gentlemen.

“So I prefer to talk about my programme than about other candidates.”

What if the other candidates don’t behave like gentlemen? That’s possible.

Presidential balcony, photo: Kristýna Maková
“I would try to behave like a gentleman [laughs].”

What has been the reaction of people around you to your decision? For instance, I was reading that your wife isn’t particularly happy that you’re standing for president.

“My wife is not exactly opposed. But we got married a few months ago and she had another idea of our life in the future.

“I think it’s normal when a young woman wants her husband for herself. And now she feels that I will have to dedicate a lot of time to politics instead of to the family.

“So I think it’s comprehensible that she doesn’t like this idea.

“But we talked seriously about it and she said she will stand by me.”

Has there been any negative reaction to your announcement? For instance the tabloid Blesk had a headline like, Naked guy Hilšer is running for president.

“I don’t consider that a negative reaction. It’s my past and I stand by my past.

“I was very surprised that there was a lot of positive reaction. I got a lot of support, from my students, from people I don’t know.

“And actually I didn’t see anything negative. There were some rude words, but that’s a minority.”

We’re a long way from the elections now. But imagine if there was a candidate who you were deeply opposed to who looked like he had a really good chance of winning. And there was another candidate who you weren’t so strongly against, or maybe not against at all, who had a chance of defeating the strong candidate you disliked – would you at some stage consider dropping out of the election and not taking part in the end?

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
“That’s a very difficult question because politics is unpredictable.

“I cannot speak now about strategies between the candidates.

“Also it’s difficult because if people support you, if you have people in your team who work hard for free, and so on, it’s difficult.

“But I want to reach the first round of the election and then I will decide who I will support.”