Austerity rejected in Czech presidential election

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On Saturday, voters in the Czech Republic participated in runoff presidential elections. Miloš Zeman, the former Prime Minister and an opponent of the austerity measures of the coalition government of current Prime Minister  Petr Nečar,  beat right wing aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg by 55 - 45 percent. About 59 percent of the eligible voters turned out in the election.

This is the first time that the office of the president of the Czech Republic has been filled by popular election. Before, presidents, including outgoing incumbent Vačlav Klaus, were chosen by the legislature. Although the post is mostly symbolic and ceremonial, the president does have some influence in appointments and foreign policy.

In the first round of the elections, held Jan. 11-12, there were nine candidates, including two independents. It was a colorful array, not least because of the presence of independent candidate Vladimir Franz, whose entire body, including his face, is tattooed with green Maori designs. That, combined with his blond Mohawk hairdo, made him look like a lizard from outer space.

Though it would have been wonderful to see him in group shots of Europe's leaders, perhaps with German Chancellor Merkel on one side and French President Hollande on the other, Franz ended up getting only 6.8 percent of the vote. Independent Jan Fischer came third with 16.4 percent and Social Democratic Party candidate Jiri Dienstbier came in fourth with 16.1 percent.

The two candidates in the second round are also larger-than-life individuals.  Karel Schwarzenberg, candidate of the TOP 09 Party, who is foreign minister and deputy premier in the government of  Prime Minister Nečar, is also known as His Serene Highness Prince Karl zu Schwarzenberg, Duke of Krumlov. The Schwarzenbergs are an Austro-German noble family who, in the days of the Habsburg Empire and until the Second World War, were among the largest scale landowners in Bohemia and elsewhere in the Empire and in Germany.

After World War II  Czecholsovak President Eduard Beneš promoted the "Lex Schwarzenberg," resulting in the confiscation of their lands and privileges, and under the socialist government (1948-1989) Karel Schwarzenberg and his family went into exile. He was a principal advisor and monetary supporter of the first anti-communist Czech Prime Minister, Vačlav Havel.

Schwarzenberg is unapologetic about his anti-communism and also about his support for other right-wing policy positions, including the use of painful austerity measures to deal with the current financial crisis, support for unpopular U.S. plans for a "missile shield" deployment in his country, and his harassment of socialist Cuba. Schwarzenberg has also not been shy about his efforts to recover lands, castles and palaces confiscated from his family after World War II.

Miloš Zeman, candidate of the Party of Civic Rights, is hard to categorize ideologically, but his eccentric bluntness  has made headlines also, and not necessarily favorable ones. In this election, he ran as a left-of center candidate, staking out a position of opposition to the austerity policies of the government. On other occasions, he has shocked people by attacking the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as being Hitler-like and warning of sinister Muslim plans against Europe. Like outgoing president Klaus, he is a global warming sceptic.

During the campaign, Schwarzenberg did himself some damage by commenting that if it happened today, the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II would be considered a crime against humanity. (The German nationalist politics of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia were a major factor in the lead up to Hitler's conquest of the country starting with Munich).

Zeman and others pounced on him for this. Zeman accused Schwarzenberg of being a Sudeten German himself, echoing President Klaus' position that he is not really a Czech but an Austro-German. Others brought up the fact that Schwarzenberg's wife, born a Countess von Hardegg, speaks only German and does not speak Czech at all.

Both candidates were considered "pro-Europe," but Zeman more critically so.

While Schwarzenberg's enemies were portraying him as a reactionary peasant-flogging, German-spouting feudal lord, his campaign tried to rebrand him as the punk candidate with an appeal to the youth culture. In campaign materials, he was shown not with his usual pipe, bow tie and aristocratic sneer, but rather as a Mohawk wearing punk idol.

Whether for this or some other reason, Schwarzenberg did better in Prague and other urban centers.

Given Zeman's opposition to austerity, which is the big issue throughout Europe right now, this election can be seen as a defeat for the European right.  

But it makes one reflect on the original rationale for ditching socialism, which was, among other things, to give the Czech and Slovak peoples a choice of high quality candidates and policies to vote for.

The Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, one of the strongest communist parties in the former Socialist Bloc, urged a frankly "lesser evil" vote for Zeman as a way of castigating the right wing policies of the present government. 

Photo: Vladimir Franz (center).   Zgeek

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