Presidential candidates remain deferential in TV debate

Miloš Zeman, Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

On Thursday evening, presidential hopefuls Karel Schwarzenberg and Miloš Zeman faced off in the first of two debates on Czech TV. Viewers over the course of the broadcast had plenty of opportunities to weigh both their strengths and weaknesses; the question now is whether the debates will sway still undecided voters ahead of the second round.

Miloš Zeman,  Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
A final week remains before Czechs vote in the runoff of the first direct presidential election, choosing between two candidates, former prime minister Miloš Zeman and current Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. The two faced each other on Czech TV on Thursday, answering questions from viewers via social media. Topics included everything from a controversial power-sharing deal agreed by Mr Zeman back in 1998, to Mr Schwarzenberg’s role in the largely unpopular current government. The candidates traded a few barbs, some jovial, some pointed, but overall the discussion was highly civil throughout. Political analyst Zdeněk Zbořil:

“The approach from both men was very respectful and they didn’t lower themselves to a tabloid level. In their debates, they have shown previous political experience and erudition and in Mr Zeman’s case a complex understanding of certain issues, namely economics. Mr Schwarzenberg lags behind on economic questions but what he lacks in that field, he makes up for with panache. The atmosphere was not unfriendly with the exception of a few moments in the debate.”

Zdeněk Zbořil,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová
One point when the two candidates did clash was when they discussed how often the head-of-state, a largely ceremonial figure, should become involved in daily politics and whether they as president would take the opportunity to speak to lawmakers in the Senate or the Chamber of Deputies in Parliament. Mr Schwarzenberg maintained the president should do so only in matters of the highest importance and not “show off”. His choice of words got a rise from his opponent Miloš Zeman.

“Do you really think that the president is just a ficus plant or oleander in the corner of the room that you just have to water from time to time?! Or that in line with the Constitution when the president fundamentally disagrees with something... he shouldn’t speak out?... It is both the right and duty of the president to express his opinion!”

While Mr Zeman was more animated, Mr Schwarzenberg was unruffled in his response:

“I think the president can speak in the lower house but it should be a rare thing, an opportunity taken only when something major is at stake and the citizens expect a response. It should not be done every time the future of one law or another is at stake. If we went that route, things would not end well.”

Photo: CTK
Other points in the discussion included the historic expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II, a potentially sensitive issue for Mr Schwarzenberg, a strong supporter of human rights who spent much of his life in neighbouring Austria. On Thursday he did not shy away from the view that if the expulsion had happened today it would be seen as a gross violation of human rights.

The candidates are set to appear in one more Czech TV debate as well as on other broadcasters including Czech Radio next week. Voters will go to the polls on January 25 and 26.