The Czech Presidential Election

Karel Schwarzenberg election poster on the bar at Restaurace U Topolu © Ricky Yates

Karel Schwarzenberg election poster on the bar at Restaurace U Topolu © Ricky Yates

On Friday and Saturday of this coming week, the Czech electorate will vote in the second and final round of voting to choose their new President. The first round, in which there were nine candidates, took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th January. Because no candidate got over 50% of the vote in that first round, the top two candidates are involved in a run-off in the second round.

The winner will replace the current President Václav Klaus, whose second five-year term of office expires in March. This is the first time that the Czech President has been directly elected by the people. Previously, the appointment was made by a joint vote of the two houses of the Czech parliament – the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.

Whilst the President wields very little political power, he is meant to represent the Czech state. President Klaus has become increasingly unpopular in recent times, both for expressing very Euro-sceptic views – this despite the considerable benefits the Czech Republic has received since becoming part of the European Union in 2004. He has also attracted great notoriety ever since the famous pen-stealing event in Chile, went viral across the internet.

The two candidates in the second round of voting are Miloš Zeman, who got 24.21% of the vote in the first round, and Karel Schwarzenberg, who got 23.40%. Whilst Zeman was expected to top the poll in the first round, Schwarzenberg’s performance well exceeded expectations and the predictions of opinion polls.

There is a real contrast between Zeman and Schwarzenberg. At a simplistic level, it is a contrast and contest between the political left and political right. Zeman is a former leader of the Social Democratic party(CSSD) and was Prime Minister from 1998-2002. In 2007, he left the CSSD and has been in the political wilderness for some years. Schwarzenberg is leader of the centrist pro-European TOP 09 party and currently Foreign Minister in the centre-right coalition government.

However, the greater contrast lies in their respective life histories and background. Zeman was born in Kolín, an industrial town east of Prague, in 1944. He has lived the whole of his life in the protectorate of Bohemia & Moravia/Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. He was briefly a member of the Communist party between 1968-1970, but thrown out for opposing Soviet ‘normalisation’ policies imposed after the crushing of the Prague Spring.

Punk Karel :-) © Ricky Yates

Punk Karel 🙂 Please excuse the timetable for Tram 8 pinned at the bottom! © Ricky Yates

Schwarzenberg was born in Prague in 1937. He and his family left Czechoslovakia in 1948, when the Communists came to power and moved to Austria, only returning to Prague in 1990, following the Velvet Revolution. He is a titled prince, officially Karel, Prince of Schwarzenberg. Or if you really want his full title in German, it is Karl Johannes Nepomuk Joseph Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Menas Fürst zu Schwarzenberg 🙂 Like many educated older Czech people, and because of his time living in Austria, he speaks fluent German with his Czech being described as ‘slightly archaic and often earthy’.

Schwarzenberg is particularly popular in Prague, which is why this post only has pictures of his posters. I have seen Zeman posters when driving to and from Brno, but didn’t get the opportunity to photograph them. Schwarzenberg is also very popular amongst young people, helped I’m sure, by some clever graphic design work, portraying him as a punk 🙂 But all Schwarzenberg’s publicity features him wearing his most recognisable trademark – a bow tie!

Schwarzenberg also seems to have the support of most of the Christian community in the Czech Republic, and from right across the spectrum. He is an active and practising Roman Catholic, but without advocating the very conservative views of the current Pope. He has also strongly endorsed the modern Czech translation of the Bible published in 2009 as ‘Bible 21’, and encouraged people to read it, thus making himself equally popular with the Protestant community.

Election board at Fraktal Bar-Restaurace © Ricky Yates

Election board at Fraktal Bar-Restaurace © Ricky Yates

If the election was taking place in ‘Fraktal‘, the bar-restaurant where I took this picture, Karel Schwarzenberg would be the very clear winner! The result this coming weekend, is likely to be far closer.

20 comments to The Czech Presidential Election

  • Russell Roe

    Thank you for this excellent summary. My Gran, who is a Christian, voted for Schwarzenberg and she says that most people she has spoken to voted for him in the 1st round which suggests he is very popular in Prague. I said to my Gran, don’t you think it is a problem that he is an aristocrat to which she said Schwarzenberg is less likely to be self-seeking and corrupt (like some Czech politicians) as he has everything he needs already. I thought that was a very good point as I know there have been a lot of corruption scandals in Czech politics and I’m sure Schwarzenberg has had no reason to be involved in a corruption scandal.

    I also said to my Gran that don’t you think it is a problem that he is 75 as is health may become an issue but of course he is about my Gran’s age so he is someone my Gran can associate with. I would probably vote for Zeman as I think he is more experienced and just because I would feel he understands the Czech Republic a little bit more than Schwarzenberg. My understanding is that Zeman helped build the Social Democratic Party into a strong and effective opposition against the Civic Democrats. (then led by Klaus)

    Having said all that, it is not a very political role and I think the problems I raised with my Gran (their age, amount of money they have, whether they’ve lived in CZ all their life e.t.c) do not affect the role of the president as much if it were say the Prime Minister. I’m sure Schwarzenberg would make an excellent president with support from a range of demographic groups as you mention. I think Zeman’s support comes from very specific demographic areas (Moravia and parts of Western and Northern Bohemia) whereas as you mention Schwarzenberg does best in Prague but also probably in some rural areas like in Stredocesky where people commute to Prague. However, I think these “specific demographic areas” represent very large areas and I don’t think Schwarzenberg will take away enough votes from Zeman in these crucial areas. We shall see this weekend though!

    • Ricky

      Hi Russell,

      Thank you for once more leaving a long & thoughtful comment. Very interesting to hear about the way your Gran voted in the first round & her reasons for doing so. Her point about the Schwarzenberg’s inherited wealth meaning he is unlikely to be involved in any form of corruption is an argument I too have read about & heard from Czech people.

      The issue about Schwarzenberg’s age is one that has been raised. However, the role of President is in many ways, highly appropriate for someone who might be seen as an ‘elder statesman’. If elected, I suspect he would be a one-term, rather than two-term President.

      The President shouldn’t really be a political animal any longer which is where I think Klaus has got himself into trouble in recent times with some of his statements. As for the electoral demography you describe, I would very much agree with your analysis. However, I doubt if Schwarzenberg will takes votes from Zeman or vice versa. The big question is where the nearly 50% of votes for the other seven eliminated candidates will go.

  • Thanks, Ricky, I have wondered about what each candidate represents.

    • Ricky

      Hi Michael,

      Very pleased to know that my post was informative for you. We await the outcome at the weekend.

  • Matt

    Nice article, Ricky.

    • Ricky

      Thank you Matt. And thank you for leaving a comment here which I believe is the first time you’ve done so. Much appreciated!

  • Sarka

    While Schwarzenberg appears to me more likeable (like a slightly stubborn and eccentric grandpa) I will vote for Zeman (who mostly looks like an arrogant pub layabout), even though I’m young.

    But I am worried many young people care more about Schwarzenberg’s coolness than his attitudes to some important topics like church restitution, Beneš Decrees and the way representants of Chamber of Deputies are voted (Zeman wants to change it – or he is claiming to do so – so it would matter more who people voted for rather than the political party’s preferences).

    It will be probably decided by the voter turnout – which generation will overcome it’s laziness.

    • Ricky

      Hi Sarka,

      Thank you for your comment. I particularly like your caricatures of each of the candidates 🙂

      Regarding the issues you raise in your second paragraph & taking them in reverse order.

      I do not know about what Zeman is proposing about how members of the Chamber of Deputies are elected but I presume he would prefer voting for individual candidates rather than for a party list.

      I understand that both candidates have said things about the Beneš Decrees and both have then said that they’ve been misunderstood or incorrectly quoted!

      However, with regard to the restitution of Church property, Schwarzenberg has certainly supported the proposal that has finally become law, twenty-three years after the Velvet Revolution. I understand that both Zeman & others on the left, want the whole agreed package reversed, this despite the Czech Constitutional Court ruling that confiscated Church property must be returned or appropriate financial compensation be paid. Why should the Christian Churches be any different to individuals or other groups whose land & property was confiscated by the Communists?

      You are quite right in saying that voter turnout will be important. The first round of the election brought a turnout of over 60% – far higher than in recent Chamber of Deputies & Senate elections which is certainly good for democracy.

  • Mike in Bohemia

    Thanks for that Ricky, very interesting. The conversations about this topic have been very stimulating. Best wishes, Mike.

    • Ricky

      Glad you enjoyed it Mike – The Presidential election certainly has made an interesting topic of conversation these last few weeks.

  • It’s certainly still going to be interesting…
    Of course, Schwarzenberg’s not really a Prince in the Czech Republic (hereditary titles are not allowed), which kind of slips away from the online discussions.
    The church restitutions are more of a mixed bunch because of the particular way it was decided/is to be executed; but I don’t know all the details, personally, and also think it’s better to finally have it decided than to keep dragging the issue behind us… it’s better to make mistakes than to completely avoid the issue, and I speak from personal experience here, because I have a tendency to avoid issues, sometimes with really bad results…

    • Ricky

      Hi Hana – Yes, it certainly is going to be interesting 🙂

      You are completely correct in saying that, strictly speaking, Karel Schwarzenberg is not a Prince in the Czech Republic. But I was just trying to explain his family background 🙂

      As for the Church restitution bill, which has finally cleared both houses of the Czech parliament, whilst it isn’t perfect, it does finally resolve an issue that has been waiting for a solution for 23 years. Procrastination & an unwillingness to fully address the issue had been going on for far too long.

  • Looking at the election as a complete outsider, the thing that appeals to me is that the general electorate are being given the say on who will represent them at presidential level, which is entirely as it should be. Otherwise there is always the chance that being elected president will be seen as a reward for certain behaviour, which may not be in the country’s (as distinct from a party’s) best interests. I await the outcome with interest.

    • Ricky

      Exactly Perpetua. Sadly, on the last occasion, the election of Klaus was the result of dubious back-room deals. After this weekend, the Czech people will have a President chosen solely by the people.

  • Fergus

    Really good assessment Ricky! I’ve been wearing my Volim Karla badge around for a while now- even if I can’t technically vote!

    • Ricky

      Thanks for the compliment Fergus. Certainly around Prague, there are lots of ‘Volim Karla’ badges about 🙂

  • Thanks, I just learned a whole lot about the Czech Republic after reading one blog post. Love the election chalk board.

  • katarina

    Hi Ricky,

    Since you do not speak Czech language you are missing out on the fun written on the chalk board. MAJOR ZEMAN – a communist propaganda action drama series . KAREL IV. – compared to Charles the 4th who was sent by his parents to study in France. He was educated and trained abroad. So, it kind of fits the characters.

    • Ricky

      Hi Katarina,

      Thank you for your explanatory comment. I had got the joke comparing Karel Schwarzenberg with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fourth, even though I didn’t refer to it in my text. But I didn’t know about the communist propaganda action drama series ‘Major Zeman’ so didn’t know why somebody had written ‘Major’ above Zeman’s name. Explanation gratefully received!

  • […] to my earlier post, the second round of voting took place on Friday 25th & Saturday 26th January. The outcome was […]