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Czech Elections – Outsiders in a Fragmented EU

The recent second round of the Czech Presidential elections saw pro-European former Prime Minister (and former member of the Communist party) Milos Zeman elected as President after a second-round runoff against  bow-tie wearing, aristocratic rival Prince Karel of Schwarzenberg (full name:  Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Menas Fürst zu Schwarzenberg). Zeman, a corruption-plagued leftist known domestically for his folksy, chain-smoking, sausage loving, beer guzzling “charm” (and known internationally for his disdain of political correctness and open Islamophobia) was able to fend off the surprisingly strong challenge of a candidate who had been perceived as largely out of touch by the Czech public only months before the election.  The 2013 election is significant in that it is the first time that a Czech President has been elected by the public, rather than by the parliament.

The campaign featured a (sometimes literally) colourful cast of candidates. Karel Schwarzenberg (often known simply as “the Count”), has been an amusing sideshow in Czech politics since the fall of the Berlin wall. In 2007, he ascended to his current post as Minister of Foreign affairs, while leading the fiscally conservative and pro-European TOP 09 party, of which he is also the founder. Schwarzenberg, speaking a peculiarly antiquated dialect of the Czech language, is the current of head of the “House of Schwarzenberg,” and is rarely seen in public without his trademark bow-tie, pinstripe suit and pipe. His popularity has been remarkable considering he would probably have been considered an anachronism a century ago. Despite the fact that his family’s coat of arms depicts a raven gnawing at a severed Turkish head (don’t even bother to let that sink in) and that the 74 year old has frequently been reported sleeping during Ministerial meetings, the Count somehow managed to position himself as a “fresh blood” candidate. The official campaign posters, designed by controversial conceptual artist David Cerny, feature Schwarzenberg styled as Sex Pistols punk legend Sid Vicious. Complete with a Mohawk and classic punk aesthetics, the popular posters, t-shirts and pins feature the slogan “Karel is not dead.”

The outsiders

For all their eccentricities, Zeman and Schwarzenberg, however, seem tame compared to their first-round rivals. Garnering international acclaim and 6.84% of the vote in the first round, the most newsworthy candidate was Vladimir Franz, a prominent impresario, whose entire face is covered by an intricate tattoo, giving him the rather striking appearance of either a tribal shaman or a coal miner at the end of a particularly bad day. Franz, frustrated with corruption and political infighting, was able to garner considerable popularity (polling in the low teens only weeks before the election) for his refusal to accept the continued dominance of the small political cadre (to which both Zeman and Schwarzenberg belong) that has controlled Czech politics since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Similarly to Franz, the third placed candidate, Jan Fischer, won popularity for being a morally upright political outsider seemingly immune to the infighting and savage tactics of his peers. Formerly the head of the Czech statistical office, Fischer became interim Prime Minister in 2009, following the collapse of a coalition government (one that, needless to say, included Zeman and Schwarzenberg’s parties). Fischer was appointed Prime Minister due to his spectacular lack of charisma (he has the look of a man stiffened by the mild unease of slight constipation), which, in the minds of Czech politicians, meant that he would be quickly forgotten by the public. However, Fischer proved to be a popular Prime Minister, with his lack of ambition or agenda seen as refreshing alternative to the cutthroat party politics of the past two decades.  Nonetheless, Fischer (who was also vying to become Europe’s first Jewish president), while genuinely morally upright and honest,  was not able to power past Zeman and Schwarzenberg, possibly because at times, he just didn’t seem all that interested.

European Future

From a western perspective, the Presidential election of a small, Eastern European country can be summed up with the smallest of headlines, somewhere at the bottom of the page, proclaiming “Pro-European leftist wins Czech presidency.” However, beyond the headline is a much more complicated story. Milos Zeman, while largely in favour of increased European integration, unlike his predecessor, the ruthlessly anti-EU Vaclav Klaus (who was elected by parliament, not by public election), nonetheless appeals to a disillusioned public. Having been outside of politics since 2003, Zeman returned on an ironically anti-corruption platform, stating his controversial (read: offensive) opinions about Islam, the Arab world and anthropogenic global warming openly, showing a blatant disregard for political decorum and superficial niceties. The Czechs have elected a man with an acidic edge, while a septuagenarian Prince turned punk rocker polled a close second and a man with a full-body tattoo was able to channel the frustrations of the nation.  Zeman is often openly angry in public, running a campaign that was more an indictment of past politics than a cry for optimism.

More important than Zeman’s victory is the fact that the election was coloured by national disillusionment. This Czech frustration is one that can be superficially attributed to continued corruption, but that is only the beginning of the story. More broadly, the field of candidates reflects the growing pains of a country coming to terms with European economic reality. One would do well to remember the Czech referendum on EU membership –  close to 80% of the public voted in favour of joining the European Union, and on the day the country was admitted, the mood in Prague was euphoric. Tens of thousands of Czech and European flags waved to the spring sky in unison, welcoming in a new European future. Nine years later, the promised economic prosperity and social cohesion has not fully come to pass. While the Czech Republic remains relatively well positioned economically compared to many of its neighbours and fellow EU members, many Czechs are still left wondering what happened to the bright future they collectively hoped for on that spring day.

– Stefan Novakovic


(Featured image: EadaoinFlynn. Creative Commons, Flickr)

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