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Presidential Election in the Czech Republic

Presidential Election in the Czech Republic

08/02/2008 - Analysis - 1st round

The Czech Parliament comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate will meet on 8th February to elect the new President of the Republic. To date two people are standing: the present Head of State, Vaclav Klaus, who is running for re-election with the support of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and Jan Svejnar, a professor of economy and public politics at the University of Michigan (USA), who is supported by the leftwing opposition forces.
As in every presidential election the issue of the voting method has come to the fore. The Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the Greens (SZ) say they favour election by universal suffrage, a measure that would be approved by most Czechs according to all the polls. The Social Democratic Party (CSSD) suggested a reform of the present voting method together with a modification of presidential competence; this includes an election in two rounds and the opportunity of the Chamber of Representatives bringing charges against the President in the Constitutional Court. Party leader Jiri Paroubek maintains that he is clearly in favour of putting an end to the secret ballot declaring that "a public vote would be transparent and clear and would be a good thing for the country."
Vaclav Klaus's present term in office will officially come to an end on 7th March next.

The role played by the President in the Czech Republic

The President of the Czech Republic is elected by secret ballot by the members of the two Houses of Parliament which on this occasion will meet in the Spanish Hall of the 17th century Castle of Prague, the Presidency's official seat, built under Emperor Rodolph II. The Czech President, whose role is mainly an honorary one, is elected for five years. His term in office is renewable once. All candidates must present the signatures of at least ten MPs in order to stand for election.

To be elected in the first round a candidate must win the absolute majority of the votes within each of the two Houses (the House of Representatives comprises 200, the Senate 81). If none of the candidates achieves this result the two candidates who have won the most votes are allowed to go through to the second round. A political party can however change candidate between rounds. Again the absolute majority is required. If none of the candidates wins a third round is organised within 14 days following the vote. Candidates must then win a simple majority of the MPs and Senators votes, i.e. 141 if 281 parliamentarians take part. If a candidate is still not elected in the third round another presidential election has to be organised.

The present government coalition comprises the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the Greens. The House of Representatives comprises 81 members of the ODS, 72 Social Democrats, 26 members of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM), 13 KDU-CSL members, 6 Greens and 2 independent MPs. The Senate comprises 41 ODS members, 13 Social Democrats, 11 KDU-CSL members, 7 Open Democracy Club (KOD), 6 of the Association of Independents - European Democrats (SNK-ED) and 3 from the KSCM.
The ODS has 122 elected members which means that if the election runs to a third round Vaclav Klaus will be 19 votes short of being re-elected.
The Outsider, Jan Svejnar

On 14th December last Jan Svejnar officially announced that he would be running in the presidential election. He obtained the signatures of 10 Senators from all of the political parties except for the ODS and the KSCM. The latter party finds that Jan Svejnar has two major faults: he is both a liberal and an immigrant. He has also asked him to relinquish his American citizenship. Some members such as Jiri Dolejs, leader of the group at the House of Representatives have said that they would vote for Jan Svejnar though.

Born in 1952, Jan Svejnar left Communist Czechoslovakia in 1969 to settle in the USA. A graduate of the Universities of Cornell (New York) and Princeton (New Jersey), he became professor of economy at the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) and Cornell before moving to the University of Michigan where he still teaches economy and public politics. He returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990 after the fall of the Communist regime; he then worked for the World Bank.
He was economic advisor to the Czech President Vaclav Havel between 1994 and 2003, and also to Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla (CSSD) between 2002 and 2004, to Economy Minister, Martin Jahn (2004-2005), to Karel Dyba (1990-1996) and to Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (2002-2005). In 1997 he became a possible candidate for the position of Prime Minister after the fall of Vaclav Klaus's government but this project was soon abandoned since he still had not recovered Czech nationality. Finally he founded the CERGE-EI, a programme to teach economics based on the model established by the American universities in Prague. He now has dual nationality, Czech and American.

Jan Svejnar has the support of the Greens, a member party of the government coalition, the Association of Independents-European Democrats and the Open Democracy Club led by Sona Paukertova. On 15th December 130 members of the central executive committee of the Social Democratic Party declared their support for him (four people abstained). "It is support I dared not hope for," he said. Criticised by the ODS for his work with the Czech Merchant Bank (CSOB) the candidate promised to leave his position at the bank if he wins.

Jan Svejnar says he defends national interests and maintains that if elected he will respect all political parties equally. "I am proud of our country and I shall do everything I can for Czechs to be proud of their President," he said. He would like the Czechs to regain confidence, improve their living standards and witness a development of the country's prestige abroad. "It is time to turn over a new leaf and leave behind a black and white view of the world," says the candidate who would like to be a "modern, dynamic and more effective" President.
Jan Svejnar is pleased to announce that he is pro-European thereby taking an opposite stance of the present eurosceptic President. Likewise whilst Vaclav Klaus is against ecologists who made the mistake of blaming human beings for global warming, Jan Svejnar would like to make this theme one of the priorities of the Czech presidency of the European Union in the first semester 2009.
Jan Svejnar has taken on a team comprising a political science teacher, Michael Kraus, company manager Karel Matousek, advisor Lukas Macek (who took part in Josef Zieleniec's campaign - SNK-ED – in the European elections 2004) and Klara Pospisil, communications advisor, who was spokesperson for Vaclav Klaus for a time.

Rallying support beyond their own camp – a vital necessity

The outgoing President, running for re-election, was officially appointed by 122 MPs and Senators of the ODS on 28th November last. "Vaclav Klaus has the support of the most important political party which can offer a great deal to parliamentarians which is not the case with the main opposition party," stressed political analyst Tomas Lebeda who believes that this support is a major advantage to the outgoing President.

Although Jan Svejnar maintains he wants to be a "President who unites", Vaclav Klaus says he is "the President of all the citizens", highlighting his popularity including that amongst those close to the leftwing opposition. He refused to take part in a televised debate with his rival as the latter invited him to do, saying that he did not need advertising. Jiri Paroubek qualified this attitude as "cowardly". "It is because he does not live in our country, he has not taken part in political life and his positions, views and activities are unknown to most Czechs," declared the outgoing President who suggested that the Social Democratic leader make a televised introduction of Jan Svejnar to the Czechs.

Although they enjoy the support of their own camps – however this is less certain for Jan Svenjar – MP Zdenek Skromach (CSSD) even suggested that the candidature of former Foreign Minister, Jiri Dienstbier, be reconsidered since he said that he wanted to stand in the presidential election – both candidates are fighting for the support of the KDU-CSL, member of the present government coalition and of the KSCM. Although the majority of KDU-CSL MPs seem to lean towards re-electing the outgoing president – Finance Minister and Chairman of the House of Representatives, Jan Kasal, have said they support Vaclav Klaus – there are some who tend more to the left of the political scale and support Jan Svenjar – Michaela Sojdrova, leader of the group at the House of Representatives and MP Ludvik Hovorka and Senator Petr Pithart for example.

Both candidates are vying for the support of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, one of the most Stalinian parties in Central and Eastern Europe. Vaclav Klaus said he was pleased that he did not ban the party. He stressed that those who fought against the Communists were a source of amusement saying that they "should have undertaken their battle 20 or 30 years ago." Jan Svejnar for his part says that the party is "different from what it was before," and declared that he was prepared to help it reform.
The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has set out five conditions that any candidate who wants its support has to fulfil. Amongst other things these conditions include equal treatment for all political parties, the opposition to the establishment of any American anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and the reform of public finances which the government would like to undertake. "Neither of the candidates fulfils our conditions although Vaclav Klaus comes closer to some and Jan Svejnar to others," said the Communist Party leader Vojtech Filip.

Although Vaclav Klaus has to rally support beyond his own camp, Jan Svejnar has to succeed in rallying a camp itself. "Support for Jan Svejnar is uncertain. Personally I cannot see him succeeding," maintains political analyst Petr Just. "The Social Democratic Party which has no candidate of its own in this election is Jan Svejnar's weak point," stresses political analyst Bohumil Pecinka. "I find it picaresque that the Social Democratic Party has not put forward a candidate representing its leftwing values," indicates Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek (ODS). The Social Democratic leader, Jiri Paroubek is quick to answer that his party does not agree with Jan Svejnar in several areas. "He's neither a Socialist nor a Social Democrat. Since he is liberal we are not expecting to agree on everything," he said. After these rather surprising comments the Social Democratic leader says that "only Jan Svejnar has a chance of beating Vaclav Klaus."

At just one month from the election Jan Svejnar is still quite unknown to the Czechs although he is beginning to gain ground, catching up with his rival. According to a poll undertaken by Median for the newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, published on 10th December last, 47% of Czechs do not know the opposition candidate. 75% of those interviewed reproach him for not living permanently in the Czech Republic. Finally two thirds of the Czechs say they are convinced that Vaclav Klaus will be re-elected. Although awareness of Jan Svejnar is growing and he has become more popular over the last few weeks and although according to a poll by STEM, 34% of the Czechs think that he would make a good Head of State, it is up to the members of Parliament to elect the next Czech President.

Results of the 3rd Round of the Presidential Election 28th February 2003

Source: Agence France Presse
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
Other stages
2nd roundResults