The start of an election year: President Klaus stays out of the fray as politicians bicker

President Vaclav Klaus, photo: CTK

As customary on January 1st Czechs gathered around their TV sets to hear the president's New Year address to the nation. President Klaus's speech was your typical New Year's address: it was balanced, well-presented and upbeat - yet it has evoked plenty of criticism in the media.

President Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Daniela Lazarova has been looking into the reactions. Daniela why did the speech get so much negative publicity in the press?

Yes, it certainly failed to get rave reviews - it has been described as "weak", "non-committal" and "second league". The daily Lidove Noviny claims President Klaus did not have the courage to speak his mind, the paper Mlada Fronta Dnes says it the speech was empty, while Pravo has described it as cautious. But, paradoxically, the president is now being criticized for doing his duty - which is to remain above party politics and not take sides. It is something that Vaclav Klaus has never found it easy to do. He rarely minces his words, we know that he can be very outspoken and a cautious speech is most unlike him. Now 2006 is an election year /there are three elections coming up: general, municipal and senate/ and this year the president was clearly determined to remain impartial. He urged Czechs to go to the polls and spoke at length about initiative and personal responsibility, but he made it clear he was not telling people who to vote for, not even indirectly. Now, while I think this went down well with the public, it must have disappointed some politicians who I am sure would have appreciated some indirect support. Indeed many commentators have suggested that the president was defending his own interests by sitting on the fence because his own term in office expires in 2008 and he will need broad support in Parliament to get re-elected.

Was the president critical of anything at all?

Well, he was critical of what he called excessive bureaucracy, and said that the number of laws he had signed last year was an indication of how much the state infringed on people's lives. And, of course, he was traditionally critical of the EU, but even there he took a softer line saying he was glad that a real debate on the future of the union was finally being allowed to develop, and at one point even noting that the Czech Republic's inner stability was enhanced by its membership in the EU. So, he really did not have any bones to pick with anyone - which is very untypical, but as I said he can hardly be faulted for it.

So, I assume that others showed much less restraint in assessing the past year and the prospects for 2006?

Quite right - Czechs had barely had time to get over their hang-over when they found themselves watching a fast-paced, aggressive slanging match between the PM Jiri Paroubek who is determined to win a third year in office for the Social Democrats and the leader of the opposition Civic Democrats, Mirek Topolanek whose party currently leads in opinion polls and who is determined to keep it that way until the June general elections. The debate was tough and aggressive and commentators predict it was an indication of things to come: a politically hot year for the Czech Republic.