Photo: DENÍK/Martin Divíšek

Election Miloš Zeman is the New President of the Czech Republic

Miloš Zeman (68) was elected the President of the Czech Republic in the direct election on Saturday, January 26th, 2013. Zeman (Party of Civic Rights, Strana Práv Občanů – Zemanovci, SPOZ) gained 54,80 % of votes. His opponent, Prime minister and the candidate of the TOP06 Party Karel Schwarzenberg (75) gained 45,19 % of votes. The campaign preceding the second round of the election was heated.

Published on on January 31, 2013

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Miloš Zeman (68) was elected the President of the Czech Republic in the direct election on Saturday, January 26th, 2013. Zeman (Party of Civic Rights, Strana Práv Občanů Zemanovci, SPOZ) gained 54,80 % of votes. His opponent, Prime minister and the candidate of the TOP06 Party Karel Schwarzenberg (75) gained 45,19 % of votes. The campaign preceding the second round of the election was heated.

Zeman has created an image of himself as the “people’s president”, someone who is easy to identify with. There are features that make him appear as an exaggerated archetype of a “standard Czech”. Since the early 2000s he has lived in the countryside, is known for his taste for beer and Becherovka, a chain smoker, has a good sense of humour and a prickly style of speaking. His representation of  “Czechness” was highlighted in the campaign because it stood in sharp contrast to Zeman’s main rival. Karel Schwarzenberg is  a noble prince, who lived as émigré in Austria during socialism. He is married to an Austrian who apparently does not speak any Czech. Moreover, Schwarzenberg made a mistake in the last days of the election campaign by condemning the so called Beneš Decrees. Those historical decrees were prepared during World War II by the Czech government in exile. The decrees laid the foundation for the large deportation of the ethnic Germans and Hungarians. They still preclude any property claims from the expelled Germans. This historical issue is frequently debated in Czech politics reflecting today’s fears and values rather than attitudes to the historical events as such.

One of Zeman’s greatest advantages before the presidential election was that he has stayed away from top party politics for so long that he has not got involved in political scandals and corruption that has been characteristic for Czech politics in the past years. In the election campaign this made him seem as someone with fresh perspectives and concrete solutions to the problems in local political culture. As a matter of fact, Zeman has a long political career behind him. He was the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic from 1998 to 2002. Zeman was the leader of the Czech Social Democratic Party in 1993—2001. During his chairmanship the Czech Social Democratic Party became one of the major parties of the country.

Zeman’s earlier career shows that he is responsible for establishing some of the most controversial practises in Czech politics. According to local analysis, his activities in the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, paved the way for corrupted practises in Czech politics.  The most concrete example is the so called “Opposition agreement” made back in 1998. It was a deal Zeman made with Václav Klaus, who at that point of time was the leader of the right wing Civic Democrats (ODS). The agreement granted the Social Democrats support for a minority government. At that time ODS was the biggest opposition party and yet it promised a steady support for the social democrats. In exchange, many Civic Democrats gained lucrative jobs in state-owned enterprises. According to the critics this practise led to corruption.

In the early 2000s, Zeman was one of the key politicians in the country. He had high hopes of crowning his political career by becoming President in 2003. However, he lost to his greatest rival Václav Klaus mainly due to disagreements inside his own party. After this, Zeman retired from politics. He left the Czech Social Democratic Party in 2007 and turned into one of its main critics. In October 2009 he founded the Party of Civic Rights (Strana Práv Občanů Zemanovci).

As a matter of fact Zeman has not only rested and written books in the countryside but has taken care of his networks even while not being active in politics. One of his most important backers has been President Václav Klaus, who openly announced his support for Zeman during the election campaign. Klaus, a well-known Euro-sceptic, does not share his critical attitude towards the European Union with Zeman, but has apparently convinced Zeman about his disbelief in global warming.

In the election campaign, Zeman’s close cooperation with people around the Russian oil giant Lukoil was frequently brought up. Zeman’s main collaborator has been a lobbyist Miroslav Šlouf, who has been involved in political scandals and has assumingly had contacts to Lukoil. Zeman’s presidential campaign received money from the head of Lukoil’s Czech office. Zeman claims the money was a personal donation. There are many people in the Czech Republic are concerned of the growing influence of Russian energy companies over Czech economy for the possible political effects on foreign policy. These concerns have a lot to do with the troubled historical experiences with the Russians.

History is used as a raw-material for political purposes in a many ways. Party membership during communism is still an issue in the Czech media, measuring the credibility of people in the present day. Zeman joined the communist party during the Prague Spring and was dismissed from the party in 1970 as so many others because he did not approve the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Thus, the membership was sufficiently short-term and the dismissal took place in the right moment.

Zeman became politically active in 1989 as part of the Civic Forum together with such key figures as Václav Havel and Václav Klaus. The activity of the Civic Forum influenced the end of the communist rule. In this vein, Zeman represents symbolically the vanguard of the Velvet Revolution just like the two previous presidents of the country. Symbols matter because the President has only a ceremonial role in the country but only little actual power. However, the president has veto – although veto can be overridden by parliament – and the right to appoint people to key posts of the state. The president of the Czech Republic can also give amnesty. Both of the preceding presidents of the Czech Republic have been visible and opinionated figures, and also controversial. Klaus in particular was very visible in opposing the European Union and loud in his sharp opinions considering the climate change. He has published a book in which he tries to convince that human are not the cause of the climate change. He compares environmentalism to religion. In the last months of his presidency he decided to give amnesty to nearly a third of prisoners led to loud protests.

Zeman will hardly become less active in stating his opinions. But after Klaus, many breathe again since the Czech Republic has nevertheless voted for a president who does not oppose the European Union. Relating to foreign-policy Zeman is may be more constructive than Havel and Klaus, because he is in good terms not only with the European Union but also with Russia. However, it is unlikely that Zeman will become the “people’s president” he has promised to be. There are many people in the country to which Zeman represents the continuity of problematic political culture of the country – many are eagerly waiting to get rid of such practises.

  • by Riikka Nisonen

    PhD, is researcher in the Aleksanteri Instititute (The Finnish Centre of East European and Russian Studies) of the University of Helsinki. She recieved her PhD in history at the University of Tampere in 2012.

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