For the first time in history of Czech Republic, citizens of the country are electing the President through nation-wide voting. The President used to be elected by MPs of both parliamentary chambers, but on December 14, 2011 the parliament adopted a constitutional law on popular vote.

The first round of elections was held on January 11-12. The turnout of voters made 61%. There were nine candidates running for the post, but none of them has gained more than 50% of votes. The second round of elections will be held on January 25 and 26. Two principal candidates are former Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman (24%) and first vice PM and foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (23%).

In an interview with ForUm, political analyst and editor of foreign affairs section of Czech daily "Hospodářské noviny" Martin Ehl spoke about the general atmosphere and expectations of the first presidential elections. 

- Mr. Ehl, how did the voting process go? Were there any incidents?

- The first round went rather smoothly. However, the elections were at risk of failure. The fact is that the law on popular vote was adopted in hurry, and candidates had certain problems with registration. Some candidates even appealed to the Constitutional Court to challenge the law and recognize it unconstitutional. However, a week before the official date of elections the Constitutional Court ruled to recognize and execute the adopted law on popular vote.

- It was the first time when Czech citizens voted for the president. Was the election campaign interesting to people?

- You know, voters were unexpectedly active, mostly thanks to Internet and social networks. However, not all candidates used this resource, as we are having the first nationwide elections in history and many candidates are not experienced in such campaigns. Election campaign HQ of Karel Schwarzenberg, though, was using internet and social networks very actively, that's why he has many young people among his supporters.

- On the eve of the elections, sociologists expected Miloš Zeman and Jan Fischer to pass to the second round. Was Karel Schwarzenberg's breakthrough a surprise?

- You know, everyone expected Zeman to gain the majority of votes, and others to fight for the second post. However, in the first round Schwarzenberg managed to overpass Fischer and to gain almost as many votes as Zeman. Fischer started to lose support two-three weeks before Christmas. He did not have firm position and tried to please everyone. At first it worked, but then voters got disappointed in him. Moreover, Fischer had communistic past, and Czech people believe that period was a waste of time. Some people from Fischer's circle have ties with lobbyists, and some mass media stood against him. 

- How has Schwarzenberg managed to become one of the leaders?

- First of all, he does not have soviet past. He is a duke and representative of the old dynasty. He is rich enough not to care about money and he does love politics. Secondly, his campaign office has many young people and during campaign he went to meet voters in person, in pubs for example. He has many supporters in Twitter and Facebook, and I won't be surprised if the majority of his electorate is people between 18 and 30 years old.

- How did the people take the story with the billboard, depicting late President Vaclav Havel in a T-shit with Schwarzenberg's pictures?

- Personally, I did not see that billboard. Anyway, Schwarzenberg did not bank on street ads. As for relations with Havel, Schwarzenberg was the head of the Department of Presidential Affairs in Havel's administration. Moreover, they were friends, and this fact is one up to Schwarzenberg. Czech people are tired of current President and his team, while the example of successful presidency of Vaclav Havel inspires and unites the people.

- Zeman was accused of being an 'agent' of Russian company "Lukoil" and of having soviet past. Nevertheless, he has managed to gain support of the population. Why?

- Indeed, there are 'people' from "Lukoil" in Zeman's inner circle, and that's why some call him a "Russian dummy". In his times Zeman was a successful Premier, but still he remains a populist, surrounded by big capital. The biggest question of his campaign is financing. Nobody knows whether he takes the money from.

These elections have shown that Czech society is divided into 'left' and 'right' voters. Zeman represents the left wing, and according to the poll results, these are older people from provinces and small towns, while city youth and Internet users support Schwarzenberg.

- Some analysts opine that due to historical reasons Czech people associate presidential authorities with royal power, with a monarch who can solve all problems with a stroke of the pen. Is it true?

-  This campaign has brought up questions, which go beyond the competence of the President. It proves that people are dissatisfied with the policy of existing parties and want the President to solve the problems. This is the first time when people can vote for a concrete person and lay hopes on him. According to the Czech Constitution, the head of state does not have broad authorities, however, his informal influence on the government and country is strong enough. 

- Czech people protested much in 2012. What are the main demands Czech voters put forward?

- I wouldn't say there were many protests in 2012, only two big demonstrations. Now people are concerned about the economic crisis and unemployment level. Moreover, many people are not happy with the amnesty announced by President Claus. He has released many economic criminals, who gathered wealth in 90ies by means of stealing.
- What do Czech people expect from the new President? What are the first problems to solve, according to your people?

- Well, according to the Constitution, the President does not have authorities to solve economic problems. However, the President represents the country on the international arena, and people expect him to cooperate with the European Union and not to assume destructive attitude towards other countries, as current President Claus does. Czech people want the new President not to create conflicts, as Vaclav Clause does, and to unite the nation.

- The elections took place right after the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. Has it somehow affected the campaign?

- Not at all. We are not so nostalgic about those events. There were certain discussions, dedicated to this historical event, and there is certain nostalgia among older people. However, Czech people still remember conflicts with Slovaks, when we were one state, and our peoples live better now than 20 or 30 years ago. Now we are both the members of the Schengen zone and can go whenever we want regardless of borders.

Alina Yeremeyeva


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