Two top parties consider steps after first round of presidential election

Přemysl Sobotka, photo: CTK

The two biggest parties in Parliament, the ruling Civic Democrats and the opposition Social Democrats, are looking for a path forward after the first round of the country’s direct presidential elections. In the elections, the Civic Democrats suffered a rout with their candidate Přemysl Sobotka coming second-to-last. And while Social Democrat Jiří Dienstbier fared far better, coming fourth, he also failed to advance.

Přemysl Sobotka,  photo: CTK
For the Civic Democrats it is going to take a while for the sting of defeat – a veritable shellacking – to wear off: their candidate Přemysl Sobotka came in second-to-last besting only outspoken euro sceptic Jana Bobošíková. The poor finish was not altogether unexpected (opinion polls never placed Mr Sobotka high on the list of candidates), but the numbers once confirmed became impossible to ignore. President Václav Klaus, a former chairman of the party, said this in response to the weekend result:

“If no one was alarmed by the outcome of the regional elections just a few months ago, this is the second similar result. That suggests that something needs to be done.”

Former justice minister Jiří Pospíšil agrees that the Civic Democrats’ weekend showing was nothing less than a wake-up call:

“The results should be a major signal for all of the party’s leadership as well as the party’s ministers.”

Some members of the party, such as MP Boris Šťastný, a long time Klaus supporter, are equally unhappy and have not minced words: according to Štastný the party did “everything in the last months and weeks to drive away core voters” – a situation the prime minister was supposedly meant to have remedied after the Civic Democrats’ last leadership convention.

Karel Schwarzenberg,  Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
But exactly which steps could or should be taken remains unclear, at least for now: at a briefing in Prague on Tuesday Prime Minister Petr Nečas confirmed that the party was not taking the election results lightly but said flatly what had needed saying on the matter “had already been stated”. Instead, the prime minister focussed not on his party but firmly on the second round of the election, announcing that the Civic Democrat leadership was now fully backing colleague Karel Schwarzenberg the chairman government coalition partner TOP 09. Prime Minister Petr Nečas:

“We have always backed other right-wing candidates where we ourselves did not succeed. In this case we are being consistent and I would like to announce that the leadership of the Civic Democratic Party supports Karel Schwarzenberg; we are asking our voters to back him in the second round of the presidential election.”

For the opposition Social Democrats who to back in the runoff is not as clear cut: despite a weak recommendation on Saturday for former prime minister Miloš Zeman as the only remaining “leftist” candidate, many remain wary. As much as a third within the party are said to back the former Social Democrat, but others like Jiří Dienstbier, the Social Democrat candidate who finished fourth in the first round, remain openly opposed.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Throughout his campaign Mr Dienstbier repeatedly accused Mr Zeman of shady politics in the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium; in an online chat room with readers of financial daily Hospodářské noviny on Tuesday he made clear Zeman for him remained unacceptable. In his words, he could not support anyone tied to ‘mafioso capitalism’ and also suggested that Mr Zeman was a leftist in name only. Dienstbier, an anti-corruption candidate who could arguably run to head the Social Democrats in the future, has suggested that for voters on the political Left, the choice between Miloš Zeman and Karel Schwarzenberg was a most difficult one.