What the Czech Presidential Election Tells Us

February 22, 2013

In its own way, the first direct presidential election in history confirmed experts’ expectations as well as their warnings. First and foremost, the view was reaffirmed that a direct presidential election would lead to a polarisation of society and that the election campaign would divide it. It has also become clear (and evidently will become even more clear) that the change to the constitution – which most politicians were not in favour of – was ultimately adopted at the last minute in, as it were, the worst possible form: a game of Old Maid, where the governing coalition hoped that through its unwillingness to modify the president’s powers or define his responsibilities the Social Democrat-controlled Senate would reject it. This did not happen, and so we have a directly elected president (with strong legitimacy from the citizens), not constitutionally responsible and with relatively broad powers (for example, the power to appoint members of the Board of the Czech National Bank without any need for confirmation). Moreover, the president occupies a space which is not defined by constitutional customs because it has become significantly clouded both by Václav Havel’s tenure and in particular by Václav Klaus’s activist policies which logically culminated in a declaration of amnesty.

If we disregard the fact that the constitutional change was adopted without the implementation law – which, again, was approved at the last minute and whose form among other things made for unusual mathematical exploits at the Interior Ministry and contributed to a deliberation at the Constitutional Court on holding the presidential election – then the election was ultimately held without major complications and perhaps also without a significant judicial aftermath.

Let us take a look – now hopefully without so much emotion – at the election campaign, or rather at the election strategies of the individual teams. It is interesting that the strategy of a two-round election was not discussed much here; the analyses were very few and were mostly replaced by media hysteria. The involvement of certain media in the campaigns went beyond the standards common in civilised countries, where support for certain candidates is not unusual but the media do not coordinate their activities (topics, concentrated attacks) directly with campaign officials, which is probably what occurred here. This poses a serious threat to media independence.

For our purposes (and with apologies to the other candidates), let us have a look at the election campaigns of the main actors, i.e. Jan Fischer, Jiří Dienstbier, Karel Schwarzenberg and Miloš Zeman. I write this knowing that there is not and has not been time for deeper analyses, and that even basic sociological data which could provide a reasoned basis for the conclusions are lacking.

Let us begin with Jan Fischer. Since the beginning, when there was first talk of possible presidential candidates, he was among those with a high degree of voter preference and was in first place for a long time. The election campaign maintained the appearance of professionalism; elements borrowed from American textbooks on political marketing applied to the Czech environment and the person of Jan Fischer, however, had quite the opposite result. The circle of people who surrounded the campaign was peculiar from the outset as well – originally former Minister Barták and former Minister Chmieľ (both of whom had been investigated or criminally prosecuted), and throughout the campaign Topolánek’s former cabinet secretary, Jan Novák. Already this circle of people formed possible explosive material, which could be used appropriately if needed. Let us add an attempt at an unnatural change of image, where Fischer’s team took a capable and trustworthy technocrat – a professional, which was the dimension that garnered support – and made him into a person who had lost his own identity and personality. I am still not sure whether it was through incompetence or by design that made it possible to eliminate Mr Fischer at a certain point; I am almost inclined to believe the second variant because the hysterical campaign by certain right-wing media which suddenly “discovered” his membership in the Czechoslovak Communist Party – to which Fischer’s team was objectively unable to react – created a space for Karel Schwarzenberg’s advancement to the second round. The Schwarzenberg team paid dearly for this attack later, however, when Jan Fischer came out in favour of Miloš Zeman. And they paid perhaps even more dearly in the fact that the intensity of the attack against Fischer in combination with the very aggressive mobilisation ahead of the first round of voting was quite unsettling for certain undecided voters – some of whom did not vote in the second round (those leaning more towards Karel Schwarzenberg), while others of whom did (those leaning more towards Miloš Zeman).

Jiří Dienstbier’s election campaign was balanced overall, although he probably could have significantly expanded the range of groups which it was possible to address. His disadvantage was relative youth (as presidential candidates go) and the fact that he has not yet “paid his dues” in politics. He apparently could have used the split in the Social Democratic Party (support for Zeman) to his advantage by addressing part of the non-governmental sector as a less partisan candidate, and his campaign could have targeted certain subgroups better (women on maternity leave, the more intellectual current of the left and the liberal centre). In circumstances where the question of strategy in the first and second round was basically not discussed in the media, it was not possible to make much use of his one strong comparative advantage – Dienstbier was apparently the only presidential candidate who with a well-run campaign could have pulled together a social coalition capable of defeating Miloš Zeman. He was a typical second-round candidate – more acceptable for most voters; he would have garnered part of the left, as well as Fischer and Schwarzenberg supporters who would have turned out to vote against Miloš Zeman.

Karel Schwarzenberg had strong media support and to a large extent dominated social networks as well. In his demeanour, Schwarzenberg represented a positive campaign, although this impression of positivism was disrupted by the emotiveness of discussions on social networks, the emotive – even unfriendly – demeanour of artists (fortunately subdued a few days ahead of the vote), mass e-mails as well as the aggressiveness of certain media – MF Dnes and Lidové noviny. Scrutiny of these newspapers (as well as the front pages of Právo) will be worth deeper media analysis by experts. This emotiveness (together with the attack against Fischer mentioned above) to a certain extent deterred undecided Schwarzenberg voters and brought out undecided Zeman voters to the polls. Schwarzenberg’s campaign repeated the focus on youth which had paid off for TOP 09 in the parliamentary election. The absurd combination of using the title of “prince” (in the style of “the prince hasn’t won yet”) together with a Mohawk taken from the punk band Sex Pistols undeniably made for an interesting advertisement, but at the same time was rather vacuous – at a minimum, it failed to address the older generation of voters who perceived the electoral vying among candidates through the values of Masarykian Republicanism and respect for the presidency as an institution. This group’s decision-making process was also decidedly complicated by Schwarzenberg’s statement about Beneš and the court in The Hague. By the way, the fact that his campaign team did not prepare its candidate for the question of the Beneš decrees can be considered a fatal error, which of course to a certain extent followed the logic of the entire Schwarzenberg campaign – mutual convincing of the convinced and mobilisation without any empathy for how the “unconvinced” might be ruminating. Except for decency (which ran counter to the style of writing in MF Dnes and Lidové noviny, and to the attacks on artists in the opposing camp), the campaign truly had no theme. And thus the middle and older generation were represented by only the traditional supporters of Václav Havel who found an appropriate symbol in Karel Schwarzenberg. In the end, that couldn’t have been enough.

Zeman’s campaign will probably enter the textbooks of political marketing. Its socio-political coalition managed to address Communist voters as well as Václav Klaus supporters (already a proven coalition in the indirect presidential elections of 2003 and 2008), to break down in part the potential of Social Democratic voters, and to address sixty-eighters and ultimately even a portion of undecided voters. Ten years of staying officially outside politics enabled him to use Schwarzenberg’s engagement in government as a source of criticism; the latter’s poor reaction to the predictable question of the Beneš decrees allowed Zeman to play the “Czech” card (again sustaining the Communist-Klausian coalition).

Zeman’s ability to react quickly and his political experience were certainly advantages in the campaign; there was a certain risk in connection with the campaign’s protracted duration, as it became increasingly difficult to rein in Zeman’s typical discourse (assaults on journalists, disparaging remarks about opponents, egotism). Zeman also succeeded in subduing the Klausian image (and to the contrary emphasising that of Kalousek in Schwarzenberg’s case) despite Klaus’s amnesty. The unmissable headline in Právo that “Zeman rejects amnesty” diffused this conspiracy in the public eye without Zeman losing Klaus’s voters. The issue of the European Union was very interesting as well – Zeman managed to unite pro-European voters and Euro-sceptics. He did not distance himself from Europe, but neither did he initiate this topic or profile himself on it. In response to a question, he did not directly express himself as against Europe; rather, he essentially embraced it – and then immediately offered his favourite critical example of energy-saving light bulbs. No one ever posed a deeper question, and the Schwarzenberg team was simply unable to introduce the issue of the candidates’ orientation towards Europe (and thereby to address a range of pro-European voters who associate the Czech Republic’s connection to Europe with the preservation of democracy).

The election is over, society is still divided and there remains a certain aftertaste as well – although perhaps a bit less pronounced than five years ago when we watched the broadcast of the election in parliament. Once again, however, we witnessed the winner savouring his victory at the expense of the defeated; magnanimity is lacking, and we will fully enjoy another five years of egotism and insults. The illusion of a uniter-president (not to mention the good King Miroslav) has dissipated once again, and the black-and-white view in society may have even strengthened.

But it is our choice whether we allow ourselves to be manipulated by politicians and the media, or whether we maintain a critical view.


Text was originally published in Listy, 1/2013.


Vladimíra Dvořáková is head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Economics, Prague, and chairwoman of Accreditation Commission. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Politologická revue, and served between 2003 and 2006 as vice-president of the International Political Science Association (IPSA). She is the author and co-author of a range of monographs and scholarly papers published in the Czech Republic and abroad. She received the Pelikán Prize (awarded by the editorial board of the journal Listy) in 2009 for her efforts in political culture and dialogue, and in 2012 the František Kriegel Award for civic courage (Charter 77 Fund). Currently, her work focuses on the issue of corruption, and she is a member of the Otakar Motejl Fund.