What did the presidential vote reveal about Czech society?

Photo: Filip Jandourek

The first Czech direct presidential election has divided the nation like never before. In the heated campaign ahead of the election’s second round, leftist Miloš Zeman presented himself as a defender of the underprivileged, exploiting his opponent’s alleged lack of “Czechness” in the process while those who backed the aristocrat foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, believed his victory would move the country away from post-communism. So how important was the social vote? What role did nationalism play in the election? And what impact will it have on Czech politics? Those are some of the issues I discussed with my guests, sociologists Ivan Gabal and Tereza Stöckelová.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
TS: “Here, the issue obviously was the personal nature of the candidates, and this highlighted some of the divisions present in the society. The elections clearly showed that for a large part of the society, the social-economic issue is really of major importance, and many people voted for the president on this basis.”

IG: “I would distinguish between the election’s first and second rounds. The first round proved that after some six months of relatively stable preferences of Mr Fischer and Mr Zeman who were in the lead, the situation changed just in one week when support declined for former member of the Communist party Jan Fischer. I think this was an important moment for the future because it showed that tolerance of those who were part of the collaborationist Communist party in the late 1970s and 80s was lower than expected.

“In the second round, most of the vote was social but not all. The fact that Mr Schwarzenberg was able to gain nearly 2.5 million votes after a really dirty campaign exploiting Czech nationalism and identity, that’s a sign that the society is very much past these issues and focuses on the future.”

The election highlighted the divide between urban and rural areas that has been apparent for a long time. But some observers like Jiří Pehe also noted another, cultural divide, along the lines of nationalism versus a more modern attitude to the nation’s identity. This ran across the right-left division as we could see when outgoing president Václav Klaus and some prominent members of the Civic Democrats backed Miloš Zeman. How significant was this divide?

Miloš Zeman,  photo: CTK
IG: “I think this Czech anti-German chauvinism in fact contributed to the fortification of Karel Schwarzenberg’s base because it upset precisely these educated, European-oriented people and made them vote for Mr Schwarzenberg. We can clearly see this is no longer an issue among young people; the fact that some 60 percent of them voted for Schwarzenberg shows they do not feel this way. And the Civic Democrats you mentioned – I think that they got involved in a game that will cost them dearly.”

TS: “I have no basis to quantify that but I would say it added to the class-based fundament of Mr Zeman’s electorate. I’m not sure how many new voters it brought him; I don’t think we will ever know. But I think it did solidify his voting base.”

The election also highlighted the troubles the two major political parties are facing. The Civic Democrats have been losing votes in recent years; the Social Democrats will have to deal with President Miloš Zeman who, with the grudge he has, might want to get involved in their party politics. If these two parties’ significance decreases – is there a room for some nationalist movement that could appeal to some of their voters?

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: Filip Jandourek
TS: “That’s a difficult question. Nearly every parliamentary election brings a surprise in terms of a new party that gets quite a lot of votes which is of course not unique in the Czech Republic. But when we look at how little support [Eurosceptic presidential candidate] Jana Bobošíková got, or the Civic Democrat candidate [Přemysl Sobotka], who both put a strong emphasis on nationalism… I think Czech society is still only mildly nationalist and I’m not really afraid of any major breakthrough on this issue – with one exception: the Roma who are considered alien by a big part of the society, and this is a reason for concern for me. And this certainly goes across these divisions; even the policies of the current government go in a similar direction.”

It’s interesting that the Roma issue was ignored during the campaign. Why do you think that was?

IG: “The election was the biggest race we went through since the early 1990s, and I think it’s a relatively marginal issue, which I think may backfire. No one really wanted to go into this minefield. Zeman’s campaign was quick to re-focus for the second round when Jan Fsicher was out and Zeman brought up the German issue against Schwarzenberg which I thought was tougher and dirtier than racism towards Roma.

“But you were asking about changes in Czech politics: we saw how important money was in Czech politics. All the candidates who ranked on top invested well over 20 million crowns and those who didn’t just disappeared. Also, we might see Mr Zeman to try and take revenge on the Social Democrats who will be threatened with a split. They can only rely on their European connections; if Mr Zeman wants to play any role in Europe, he will have to exercise certain constraints.

Jiří Dienstbier,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“The internal battle between the pro-liberal, anti-corruption wing of the Social Democrats represented by Jiří Dienstbier and the supporters of Miloš Zeman within the party is not over, and it might result in the establishment of a new left in the style of Tony Blair. So the presidential election might have a significant influence on the development of Czech politics.”