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Czech Presidential Race Pits Past Against Future, Says Expert

DW-WORLD.DE spoke to political analyst Jiri Pehe about the Czech presidential vote on Friday, Feb. 8, which pits euroskeptic President Vaclav Klaus against Brussels-friendly émigré Jan Svejnar in a neck-to-neck race.

A female guard stands in front of the presidential palace in Prague

Will the guards at Prague's presidential palace salute Klaus or Svejnar after Friday?

Currently Director of New York University in Prague, Jiri Pehe ran the Political Department of then President Vaclav Havel from 1997 to 1999. He is one of the Czech Republic's leading political analysts.

DW-WORLD.DE: Just a month ago, it looked as though Vaclav Klaus would have no problem winning a second term. But since then we've seen Jan Svejnar arrive on the scene and the race suddenly looks a lot harder to predict. What result are you expecting?

Jiri Pehe: It will be a very tight race. In my opinion it may go into a third round. The presidential election in the Czech Republic is structured in such a way that if no one is elected in the first two rounds when the two houses of parliament vote secretly, then in the third round, the two houses create one electoral body of 281 electors and whoever gets the majority wins. Since the Communist Party has said it will try to block the election of either of the two candidates, it is quite possible that the first election will not be successful.

So the Communist Party might prove to be the kingmaker?

Vaclav Klaus

Has Vaclav Klaus kept his promises?


Once again, the Communist Party does seem to be in the role of kingmaker. In 2003, it helped Vaclav Klaus get elected. This time it has a different strategy. Vojtech Filip, chairman of the Communist Party, has repeatedly said that the Communist Party would prefer to block the first election altogether and then sit down with the Social Democrats and come up with a candidate who would be more leftist.

Very broadly, what have been the main issues at stake in this presidential race?

I think the issues are very bound up with the person of Jan Svejnar, who says: I represent the future, I have a forward-looking approach. Vaclav Klaus has been in Czech politics for 19 years and now represents the past. Klaus is a very experienced politician who certainly knows the business, but he doesn't bring anything new to the table, and in fact if he does, it's usually simply opposition towards something.

Even if Svejnar doesn't win, has he nonetheless changed Czech political culture?

Jan Svejnar

Svejnar has changed the face of Czech politics

He has contributed a great deal to the atmosphere of Czech political culture. His approach has been novel. He decided to run what is referred to here in the Czech Republic as an 'American' campaign. So even though the president is elected by parliament, he traveled around the country, he spoke to people and presented his views. And in a country where the president is elected through behind-the-scenes deals, this was a very refreshing approach. He basically said to the current political establishment: Look, let's do it openly, let's find the best person and not just let someone in who promises the most, behind-the-scenes.

And how has the Czech public responded to Svejnar's more American style?

The Czech public and the media were quite skeptical at the beginning but Svejnar really managed to excite the people. The latest opinion polls show that he is gaining on Mr. Klaus or even leading, which means that more people would prefer to see him as president than Mr. Klaus. Given that his campaign has lasted only about two months, this is an amazing achievement. He deserves full credit for being a very good candidate.

How big a problem has Svejnar's US citizenship been?

Mr. Svejnar's US citizenship has been an issue, especially for the Communist Party. And since he needs its support to get elected, he ended up promising that if he gets elected he will give it up. Personally, I don't feel this was a very smart idea on his part -- because it was really only the Communist Party demanding it. But if he feels that this is necessary to impress the Czech Republic and the Communist Party, then I respect his decision.

Will Svejnar still have a future in Czech politics even if he loses?

Definitely. He has created huge public expectations. A lot of people are pinning their hopes on him. Even if he loses the presidential election, he will be under great pressure to stay in Czech politics in some role. There is some speculation about him becoming a member of the current government or founding a new political party. Certainly, if he does so, he will have good chances of succeeding because he represents a political center which at the moment is not well represented in Czech politics.

The Czech Republic is due to take over the EU presidency on January 1, 2009, so this will be a very crucial term for a Czech president. Given how much of an EU-skeptic Klaus is known to be, will the EU issue prove to be decisive on Friday?

The EU is certainly an important issue, and personally I don't think it's mentioned as much as it should be. Indeed, if Klaus is re-elected, he will have a free hand because he will not have to care about another term and will basically be able to do whatever he wants to do. He may well become even stronger than he is now in his anti-European views. The Czech President doesn't have many powers, but one of the powers he does have is to veto laws. As president, he could veto the new European Reform Treaty, which would then have to go back to the parliament for a new round of discussions. Certainly, Mr Klaus has made it clear that if he is re-elected, the Czech Republic will not adopt the common European currency until after the end of his second presidential term in 2013. So there are certainly some very concrete threats coming from Mr Klaus with regard to Europe.

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel: a hard act to follow

Klaus is also well-known for his skeptical stance on global warming, which he calls bogus, and environmentalism "a threat to freedom and economic growth." Is this position counting against him, or does he have support for it within the Czech Republic?

Klaus has been very careful in his choice of topics. The only topic on which he is outspoken and which has any political relevance is the European Union, but other issues -- such as global warming, the ideology of human rights or his opposition to civil society -- are not really politically very sensitive issues in the Czech Republic. A lot of politicians -- with the exception of the Green Party, which clearly cares about the environment -- take his views on global warming as somewhat extreme and out of line, but since these views have no direct impact on Czech politics, they will not play any role in the presidential election.

Given that the presidency is a largely symbolic post, how important for the Czech Republic is the outcome of this week's election?

The outcome is important on two levels. Firstly, on a symbolic level. The president is very highly regarded by the Czech people: The presidency is a very important post from the public's point of view. The president's approach sets the agenda. Secondly, although the president doesn't have too many powers, he does have some. He can appoint judges, for example, and members of the governing body of the Central Bank. He can leave a legacy in the form of these appointments, which will stay with us for many years to come. So, in this respect, it will be very important who the next president is. And I suspect that if Mr. Klaus is re-elected, he will make sure that the governing board of the Central Bank is fully staffed with people who are opposed to the introduction of the common European currency.

When Vaclav Havel left office in 2003, he was seen as a very hard act to follow. How has Klaus done?

Mr. Klaus has definitely tried to be a down-to-earth president. He wasn't brought to office by history, as Havel was, but by an electoral process -- and he tried to make his presidency more ordinary than Havel's was. But on the other hand, he failed to live up to his promises of being a non-partisan president. Before his election in 2003, he promised to be above political parties and to respect the constitution. Unfortunately, he has repeatedly tried to test the constitution and constitutional powers during his presidency, and as honorary chairman of the conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), he is most definitely politically partisan.

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