Švejnar hoping to win over public but really needs to win more backing in Parliament

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK

In exactly a month’s time, on February 8, Czech legislators will convene to elect a new president, with the incumbent Václav Klaus set to go head to head with Jan Švejnar. Mr Švejnar has spent most of his life in the United States and is little known in the country of his birth, something he hopes to rectify with a campaign which will take him to a number of regional centres. But it is in Parliament itself that Jan Švejnar really needs to win more backing.

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
Speaking at the official launch of his election campaign on Monday, Jan Švejnar said he plans to listen to the opinions of voters when he visits seven regional centres over the next three weeks, starting in Zlín and Kroměříž on Wednesday.

While Mr Švejnar is pressing the flesh in south Moravia, Václav Klaus will remain in Prague, holding talks with senators from two small groupings which have no deputies in the lower house. Mr Klaus, who has also rejected the idea of a TV debate with Mr Švejnar, has been rather withering about his opponent’s “tour”; the incumbent and favourite says he has no need to traverse the country shaking people’s hands for the first time.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
And in a very real sense he doesn’t. After all, it is not voters but the country’s 281 deputies and senators who will elect a new president in 31 days’ time. The Senate is controlled by Mr Klaus’s Civic Democrats, so he is essentially guaranteed a place in the second round of voting.

It is in the Chamber of Deputies, therefore, that Jan Švejnar, already backed by the Social Democrats and Greens, needs to try to drum up more support. Given that fact, he was somewhat wishy-washy at the launch of his campaign and website svejnarprezidentem.cz (Švejnar for President).

Jan Švejnar, photo: CTK
One key question is citizenship. Mr Švejnar has joint Czech-American citizenship. The Communists – whose support is crucial – are saying they will not back him if he does not give up his US passport. Therefore, it was surprising perhaps that on Monday – with little over four weeks to go – he said he still needed to look into the matter. He did point out, though, that Ireland once had a president who was a US citizen, while the Czech Republic has had two foreign ministers with dual citizenship.

Before the news conference Jan Švejnar held talks with the head of the Roman Catholic church in the Czech Republic, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, a move which may have been designed to appeal to the Christian Democrats, another party whose backing he needs to win. That may also have explained his reluctance to use anything but vague language about the possible return to cabinet of the party’s controversial leader Jiří Čunek.