Václav Havel and the presidential election

January 21, 2013

The Czech Republic has now gone through the first round of a direct presidential election. Of the nine contenders, two advanced to the finale – former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman and Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. In recent days, the media have also analysed the approaching second round from various angles. One important viewpoint must be especially accentuated, however.

In many respects, the election of the head of state takes place “in the shadow" of Václav Havel. And several candidates immediately appealed to the legacy of the ex-president, who died in December 2011. The first “Havellite” is understandably Karel Schwarzenberg. During the 1990s, the current foreign minister served at Prague Castle as Havel’s chancellor. “He was a very pleasant boss; he was very interested in what I was doing,” commented Schwarzenberg for the media after Havel’s death. (The two men, who became acquainted already under the previous regime during the 1980s, shared an intense interest in human rights, among other things.)

The friendship between Schwarzenberg and Havel was longstanding, and Schwarzenberg is now emphasising in his campaign that he would like to continue in Havel’s steps. As a result, a large portion of votes from among those who miss Havel’s spirit at Prague Castle are going to the TOP 09 party chief. And this despite the fact that certain members of this group are disappointed with the present government and with Schwarzenberg’s long-term close cooperation with his party deputy chairman and finance minister, Miroslav Kalousek, who is widely viewed as controversial.

Another presidential candidate, Táňa Fischerová, who has worked in many civic associations, also bet on Havel’s legacy – in particular on its moral dimension. “I’ve known her for a long time, and I believed that especially young people would see in her the continuation of Václav Havel’s thinking because she was very close to him,” said of Fischerová her long-time friend, singer Marta Kubišová.

The fact that she backed the Green Party, which Havel openly supported especially in the last years of his life, gave her candidacy a certain “Havellian” dimension. “We want to raise our heads up and have the option to vote for someone who offers more credibility, a broader view of the world and a continuation of Václav Havel’s imprint on the presidency,” said Green Party chief Ondřej Liška in connection with actress Táňa Fischerová’s candidacy.

Táňa Fischerová – who was considered by many in the media to be the greatest outsider among the candidates – ultimately surpassed expectations, receiving 3.23 per cent of votes and thus beating straight away two of the nine contenders for the Castle: ODS candidate Přemysl Sobotka and Suverenita candidate Jana Bobošíková.

Among the other candidates, it is somewhat more difficult – although still possible – to find a direct link to Havel. KDU-ČSL candidate Zuzana Roithová spoke of wanting to build upon the dignity and moral credibility which Havel was able to return to the Czech Republic while in office. Similarly, ČSSD candidate Jiří Dienstbier, who was supported in particular by “non-Zemanite” Social Democrats, told Czech Television that he would like to approach Havel in the latter’s ability to elucidate the true state of Czech society.

Furthermore, in Dienstbier one can also find another dimension which attracted the “soul” of the Havellian voter. Jiří Dienstbier, like his father of the same name who was once Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister, is viewed by the public as the prototype of a respectable politician. Moreover, the older Jiří Dienstbier – along with Havel – was one of the most important figures of the dissident movement under the previous regime.

It is practically impossible to link another group of candidates – Jan Fischer, Vladimír Franz – to Havel. Statistician and former Prime Minister Jan Fischer was definitely in no way interesting for the typical Havellian voter. In this regard, as in many others, Fischer seemed lacklustre. And Franz, the artist, evidently received mainly protest votes. It became clear during the campaign that he is clearly not of a presidential format, and some of his answers to questions in televised debates seemed rather comical.

The last handful of contenders for Prague Castle symbolise in many respects what Havel was not. Miloš Zeman, who won the first round, attracts voters who dislike Havel’s public activities even today. Zeman is even supported by Communists, and in certain online discussions one can read that his supporters consider Schwarzenberg to be “truth-loving” – i.e. rebuking him pejoratively for his affinity with Havel. Even in the Zemanite camp, however, it is possible to track down a voice which invokes Václav Havel. “I see him as a president who can change the circumstances in this country. For me, there’s a clear line from Masaryk to Havel to Zeman,” said musician F.R. Čech of Zeman. (This statement can be found on the Zeman campaign’s website.)

These words are unparalleled among “Zemanites”, however, and this construct seems somewhat laughable. Zeman was never particularly close to Havel; to the contrary, he was able to reach agreement with Václav Klaus on the so-called opposition agreement, which preserved the political scene unhealthily between 1998 and 2002.

It is only worth mentioning the other two names briefly. Senator Přemysl Sobotka was, as mentioned above, the ODS candidate. As such, he has more of a “Klausian” – i.e. “anti-Havellian” – view of the world; outgoing President Václav Klaus always defined himself as vehemently against Václav Havel. Klaus also provides cover for Jana Bobošíková, whose sometimes fanatical anti-European rhetoric and oblate world view represents the national element of the political scene, standing in principle against Havel’s efforts to achieve general understanding in Europe.

In the past, the cliché was often repeated that Havel’s support for a given political entity or candidate meant a disadvantage. This was not true. These elections have demonstrated that Czechs lack a personage like Václav Havel who symbolises values such as respectability and moral constancy; all of the candidates who more or less took cover from Havel were successful.

In recent years, it has been asserted that political culture in the Czech Republic is in decline. In the wake of the last presidential election in 2008, which was accompanied by a range of scandals, this election provides some hope for improvement. That candidates claiming the mantle of Václav Havel received so many votes is encouraging as well.

Petr Janoušek

The author is a journalist.