What do Czechs expect of their future head of state?

Foto: Filip Jandourek, Archiv des Tschechischen Rundfunks

Czechs will soon be voting in the country’s first direct presidential elections. What do they expect of their future head of state? What qualities should he or she have? And are Czechs ready for a woman in office? In this edition of Panorama I talk to the head of the STEM polling agency Jan Hartl about the role of the Czech president and people’s expectations.

Jan Hartl,  photo: Noemi Holeková
“The Czech president is perceived as a person operating above political parties. His/her role is to systematically control the work of the government and political parties. He is not expected to intrude in executive policies but he should constantly follow developments and in case of a real problem, an important issue or substantial tension among the political forces he should vigorously step in and restore order. The general perception is that of a monarch and that has its traces in history.”

So what qualities should the future president have?

“Well, the Czech president is not allowed to do much. His competencies are relatively low and we are very far from having a presidential system. What’s important is that the president has considerable influence. The public respects his views on the main issues of the day, he can be present at government and Parliament sessions whenever he wants, he can indicate his position on crucial matters and present his ideas to the media and his words are always listened to with respect. The office of the president traditionally enjoys a high degree of respect and that goes back to the days of our first president Tomas G. Masaryk. “

So in order to best fulfill that role, what qualities would Czechs be looking for in electing the next head of state?

Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
“Well, it is a difficult combination in fact, because the general expectation is that the president should be very strong in his political views but he should, under normal circumstances, stand aside from day-to-day politics. However he should be capable of stepping in whenever it is necessary. So he has to be very modest in a certain way, but he should also be dominant when necessary, which is a clear controversy. The president should be a ceremonial figure able to fulfill all the formal roles of office, but on the other hand he should be very sensitive to public opinion, he should be aware of the main trends in society, he is supposed to be able to talk to ordinary people in the street and get his own perception of events. So in this sense the president is expected to be both a very remote person and an approachable one. Such expectations are very difficult to fulfill by a single candidate. It will be interesting to observe who people will vote for in the first direct elections in view of these high expectations. Opinion polls suggest that at the end of the day people vote for a candidate who is simply acceptable in many ways, but not really outstanding. So in theory we may have high demands on the head of state but in practice we could end up with a person who is widely acceptable, has no enemies and that would be about all …..”

Václav Klaus,  photo: archive of the Czech Government
…but who need not necessarily be charismatic?

“Yes, that’s it.”

Czechs have long needed a strong moral authority in the post – president Masaryk, president Havel – has that changed in a way with the Vaclav Klaus era, or not?

“Well, let’s see. It would seem that moral integrity would have required for candidates not to have compromised their good name with communist party membership and we have two leading candidates who were communist party members. It is not clear whether that will be seen as a serious drawback, but for the time being it seems that it is no longer considered important.”

Will Czechs look for someone to defend their national interests –is that an important factor?

“Yes and no. If you had asked me this a few years ago I would have dismissed the national issue because there was no strong political figure on the scene playing the nationalist card. But recently the “national interests” issue has been given more and more attention in public debates and our integration into European structures is getting less and less popular. So candidates will certainly define their positions on this, but having said that, the national issue is not a strong feature in the presidential campaign, at least it has not been so to date.”

There are three female candidates in the running. Are Czechs ready for a woman in office?

Vladimír Franz,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Generally women are very positively accepted in politics and if you ask the question in general terms you would hear that we need more and more women in politics because the prevailing political style is too aggressive and that women would be more issue-oriented and more cultivated in their political behavior. So the general view of women in politics is positive. Still, I am not sure whether public opinion is prepared for a woman president. It would be something totally new. We now have the novelty of a direct election and the idea that change would go so far as electing a woman as the next head of state is unlikely. It is not on the agenda of the day. But it might be possible in the near future.”

How do you read the result of the recent students’ mock election in which Vladimir Franz won hands down?

“That’s very interesting. Czech public opinion at this moment seems to be defined by a very strong opposition to existing political parties, especially the big political parties and towards politics as a whole. The response of young people is to seek something unconventional, to send a strong signal to the governing elite that they are dissatisfied with them and want someone totally different. It is a kind of provocation and it is a very strong sentiment among young people, even among highly educated young people. People are not satisfied with the present state of politics and everything points to a crisis of leadership.”

President Klaus’ second term in office is slowly coming to an end. How do you think people will look back on the Klaus era?

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“At this moment Vaclav Klaus is ranked positively by slightly over 50 percent of Czechs. That is still a relatively good ranking. He has suffered a certain decline during the past several months though he is still well accepted by the majority of Czechs. Still, the fifty-fifty result which we observe now indicates that he is a controversial figure. I think that, with hindsight, he will be seen as a key politician in the early ‘90s while his later years will be more controversial, increasingly so towards the end of his second presidential term.”

So the days when Czechs idealized their presidents, such as they did president Masaryk and president Havel, are well and truly over?

“They are over.”