Miloš Zeman becomes first directly elected Czech president

Miloš Zeman, photo: ČTK

Miloš Zeman is set to become the first directly elected president in Czech history. Following a divisive campaign, the former Social Democrat prime minister defeated his second-round rival, Karel Schwarzenberg, by 55 percent to 45 percent. The outgoing head of state, Václav Klaus, has welcomed the result.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: ČTK
Miloš Zeman, who in the 1990s built the Social Democrats into an election-winning force, is one of the most significant figures in post-1989 Czech politics.

The former prime minister appeared to have missed his shot at Prague Castle when he lost a parliamentary presidential election in 2003. However, on Saturday Mr. Zeman completed a remarkable comeback, soundly beating TOP 09 chair Karel Schwarzenberg by 55 percent to 45 percent.

Mr. Zeman, an excellent public speaker known for his acerbic wit, succeeded in focussing attention on Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg’s membership of a cabinet that has undertaken unpopular reforms.

As the pre-election battle intensified, he and his backers also played the nationalist card, attempting to portray the blue-blooded Mr. Schwarzenberg as something of a “foreign” candidate. (The prince’s family was forced into exile by the Communists in 1948 and his Austrian wife doesn’t speak Czech.)

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: ČTK
Asked at a chaotic press conference at a Prague hotel on Saturday afternoon how he hoped to bring together a society that has become sharply divided in recent weeks, the president-elect said he wished to be the head of state of all 10 million Czechs.

“I don’t want to be the president of godfather-style mafias that act as a parasite on this society and suck the blood out of its body, without providing any real value in return. And being the president of all citizens from right to left and the other way around is the duty of everybody who has been elected president of the Czech Republic.”

Interestingly, Mr. Zeman was not flanked by his publicity-shy wife but his teenage daughter and a popular actress who supported his campaign.

Meanwhile, at his city centre headquarters, Karel Schwarzwenberg – who had surprised many by making it out of the first round – conceded defeat in front of his supporters.

Václav Klaus,  photo: ČTK
“I am terribly proud of my election team. They fought bravely but never lied or struck below the belt. For that, I would like to thank them – in the tensest moments that never happened. We kept our honour, even in this defeat. Thank you all!”

President Václav Klaus and members of his family had indirectly supported Mr. Zeman and the outgoing head of state told Czech Radio that he welcomed the outcome of the vote.

“With a good feeling, I can say I’m proud of the Czech nation. I think the Czech nation didn’t allow themselves to be confused by an incredible media anti-campaign. I’d like to use the kind of exaggeration that has often been seen in our country and say that now, finally, love and truth have won out over lies and hatred.”

Petr Nečas,  photo: ČTK
Prime Minister Petr Nečas, who had said he was backing Mr. Schwarzenberg, a cabinet colleague, with gritted teeth, paid tribute to the victor’s heavyweight status.

“Miloš Zeman is a logical candidate for president. Of all those who stood, he was the most natural candidate – because the post-1989 era in Czech politics has generated three particularly strong personalities: Václav Havel, Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman.”

Mr. Klaus will step down on March 7. The following day, fanfares will sound as Miloš Zeman is inaugurated in a grand ceremony at Prague Castle, which will become his home for at least the next five years.