Czechs get a new president

The second round of the Czech presidential election was held on Friday and Saturday (see previous report here), delivering victory to former Social Democrat leader Miloš Zeman with a relatively clear margin of 54.8% to 45.2% for foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Zeman will take office on 7 March, replacing two-term incumbent Václav Klaus, and will be the Czech Republic’s first directly elected head of state.

The BBC reports that Zeman was supported by “many poorer, older voters from areas of the country that have suffered in the economic downturn,” while Schwarzenberg was “wildly popularly amongst young, urban voters.” Zeman clearly also benefited from his populist image as a straight talker, although it has also got him into trouble in the past – notably with his extreme anti-Muslim views. He has also supported compulsory voting and said he would refuse to meet the dalai lama.

The comparison with last year’s French presidential election is probably overplayed, but the result certainly looks like a vote against austerity and economic liberalisation. Zeman is, however, said to be a supporter of closer European integration, unlike the Europhobic Klaus. Moreover the presidency (unlike its French equivalent) is a largely ceremonial position, more like the Australian governor-general, although there are suggestions that Zeman would like to beef it up a bit.

It’s interesting though that Klaus, despite his reputation as an economic liberal and despite the history of rivalry between the two men, was clearly supporting Zeman. It would be interesting to hear what Klaus’s foreign cheer squad, including our own Institute of Public Affairs, think about that.


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