On Saturday, the Czechs elected Miloš Zeman, an architect of the democratic transition of the early 1990s, to be their new president. Although this role is mostly a symbolic one, expectations were high for a change in public policy. Are Czech voters bound to be disappointed? There were three strong personalities in the Czech politics of the 1990s: Václav Havel, the leader of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Václav Klaus, the architect of post-communist economic renewal, and Miloš Zeman, Klaus’ main critic and opponent. All of them became Czech president – the last mentioned in the historical first-ever direct presidential election this Saturday. Zeman defeated Karel Schwarzenberg (55 % to 45 % in the second round), minister of foreign affairs, nobleman, familiarly called “prince”, and a follower of Havel-style politics. Schwarzenberg, who always stressed the role of civil society, the Czech role in the promotion of human rights around the world and who held a frank view on Czech post-war history, won the support of the capital Prague and other big cities. On the other hand, Zeman, who left the Social Democrats and founded his own marginal party, attracted votes from the countryside and areas with high unemployment.
This was the Czechs’ first experience of direct election of the head of state. Paradoxically, the Czech presidency has not that many competences; yet, expectations of the president are high. Presidents have always been strong figures. That counts for both Czech presidents, as well as for their democratically elected predecessors in former Czechoslovakia. The election campaign wove a considerable amount of ambiguity round the position: the candidates and the media knew well that the president cannot propose legislation; however, they often discussed what laws should be amended, and how. Both were aware that the president cannot shape economic policy; yet, it became one of the hot electoral topics. In the Czech political system, it is the government who holds executive power. So the question arises – what will the president actually do with his unprecedented legitimacy? Zeman is, in addition, an experienced politician with a number of friends and foes in politics. Is he going to intervene in the day-to-day political life of the country, in the same way as incumbent president, Václav Klaus, has done?
Apropos this, Václav Klaus signed an awkward alliance with Miloš Zeman before the elections. He publicly announced that Zeman is the only “real politician” on the list and did not hide his happiness when the results were announced. Klaus and Zeman were the greatest rivals of Czech politics in 90s. The former was a proponent of a fast economic transformation based on a neoliberal model; the latter criticized it from social democratic positions. Surprisingly, Václav Klaus tolerated Zeman’s minority government in 1998-2002 and the two somehow became personally close. The “era of opposition agreement”, as the Klaus-Zeman cartel has been labelled, has since then become infamous for high corruption and the absence of authentic opposition forces.
Zeman and Klaus have similar views on how politics should be conducted, which is what brought them together in the first place. There are also areas of policy where their views diverge – but not enough, it seems, to tear their friendship apart.