Will Klaus’s re-election impact Czech party politics? And what kind of president can we expect during his second term?

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK

Václav Klaus will be sworn in for a second term as Czech president next month. Mr Klaus, who is 66, has been one of the most important and influential figures in Czech politics since the Velvet Revolution. But his re-election was fraught with controversy, with a great deal of bad blood on both sides. Will the course and outcome of the vote have consequences for Czech party politics? And what kind of president is Mr Klaus likely to be in his second term? We will be looking at those questions and more in this edition of Talking Point.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
Political scientist Jiří Pehe was an advisor to the previous Czech president, Václav Havel. He says the manner in which Mr Klaus was re-elected casts something of a shadow over his success:

“There are no big winners and no big losers. Mr Klaus was confirmed as president. However, he achieved his victory with the help of means which cast a certain doubt on his victory. He can celebrate of course and he should be congratulated.

“But at the same time just as his victory in 2003 was partly the result of Communist support, this time it is the support of several deputies and senators whose motives were not entirely clear. That will remain a big question mark in Czech politics.”

Mr Klaus’s opponent Jan Švejnar was mainly backed by the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens, the smallest party in the governing coalition. The Social Democrats were up in arms when one of their deputies unexpectedly backed the incumbent.

Meanwhile, Mr Klaus’s Civic Democrats were incensed by their coalition partners the Greens, who a) backed a public vote at the eleventh hour and b) verbally attacked the president.

Given all the bitterness surrounding the vote, will the presidential election lead to changes in the current Czech political constellation? That’s a question I put to Prague-based journalist and commentator Erik Best:

“If it has an impact on the Czech political constellation will depend on how things progress in the next couple of months. I would say the short term impact won’t be very great, because there will be an effort on the part of the Greens and the Civic Democrats to get over the differences they’ve had and heal their wounds.”

Jiří Pehe is rather more pessimistic in this regard:

“All the political parties invested heavily in the outcome of the elections. The way the presidential election went created fissures within the ruling coalition. And of course there are also some problems between the Communists and the Social Democratic Party – the two parties are now arguing about which one actually contributed to Mr Klaus’s election.

“So there will be some consequences. I myself wonder whether the ruling coalition – with all the bad blood between the Greens and the Civic Democrats – whether it will not cause the disintegration of the governing coalition.”

Getting back to Mr Klaus himself, he was appointed Czechoslovak minister of finance way back in 1990 and was the first prime minister of the independent Czech Republic. By the time his second term ends he will have been at the top of Czech politics for almost a quarter of a century.

So is it the case – as commentator Jan Urban has suggested – that Mr Klaus is the most powerful holder of what is, at least nominally, a symbolic position since Czechoslovakia’s first president T.G. Masaryk? Erik Best:

“Well, Klaus himself distinguishes between influence and power. He does certainly have power in the areas of appointing members of the board of the Czech National Bank and appointing justices to the Constitutional Court. Beyond that it is a question of influence, but because of his stature in Czech politics he has used this to build up tremendous influence.

“He is able to use this influence on the government, on the opposition, on other areas of political life. For this reason it’s a position that he has to an extent created – there’s no guarantee that the next person who comes along would be able to duplicate it.

Václav Klaus, photo: CTK
“So, yes, I think he’s very influential and I think his power is relatively limited, except for those two areas I spoke mentioned. But he has created this influence and it’s to his credit.”

Václav Klaus is a staunch opponent of further European integration and is known internationally for challenging received wisdom on global warming.

Given that the Czech constitution precludes from standing for a third term as president, can we expect Mr Klaus to be even more strident in his views over the next five years?

Or, with an eye to the history books, will he keep some of his more unconventional opinions in check? Here’s the view of Jiří Pehe, who, it must be pointed out, has crossed swords with the president in the past.

“There are two schools of thought on this. Mr Klaus’s supporters, commentators who in a way admire Mr Klaus, say that he will play for history. He will become more of a statesman, he will suppress some of his radical opinions.

Václav Klaus, photo: Štěpánka Budková
“Then you hear the other side who say, this isn’t really in line with Mr Klaus’s personality, he is now liberated from any political…considerations, he does not need to look over his shoulder as to whether he will get re-elected, and as a result he will be much more radical than he was even in the first presidential term.

“I personally tend to side with the second camp. I think that, given his personality, Mr Klaus will certainly use the fact that he doesn’t really have to be worried about his re-election to push some of his topics and issues much more aggressively than in the past, and he can also cause some problems in Czech domestic politics.”

By contrast, Erik Best says Mr Klaus may tone down his rhetoric in his second term.

“In a sense his views are so…different from the accepted norm that it would be difficult for him to get more radical, he’s already radical enough. I think in some ways he may have to reign in his criticism. Not perhaps in terms of the words he uses, but – especially with regard to the EU, with the upcoming rotating presidency – I think he is going to want to look like a statesman during this period. And although his rhetoric might not change all that much, I don’t think he will actually do much to have any negative impact on the presidency.

Could it be potentially embarrassing for the Czech Republic to have a Euro-sceptic president during the country’s own presidency of the EU in the first half of next year?

“I’m a bit more tolerant towards Klaus in this respect than some others, even though I am critical in domestic affairs. I think his international image is not quite as bad as some people portray it, I think his impact on Czech foreign policy and the image isn’t as bad as some people portray it.

“For this reason I don’t think it will be that negative – perhaps it could even be positive during the presidency…I think that the ones who speak out the most about him internationally are his rivals, so of course they criticize him the most.”