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25 January 2013

Czechs Go to the Polls

This weekend, the Czech Republic stages a runoff, pitting the top two candidates of a preliminary election for the post of President against each other, the first direct election in the country's post-1989 history. Karel Schwarzenberg, christened "the Duke" in the Czech press, faces an uphill battle against the last of the old guard; former communist, former Social Democrat, and currently leader of the "Zemanists," the eponymous Miloš Zeman, who at 67 has run the gamut of the Czech left and enjoys a strong advantage with poorer and older Czechs who have seen prices of prescription drugs in the past twenty years increase from zero to something considerably higher than zero (though still low by American standards).

The patriarch of the House of Schwarzenberg, who really is a duke, in the old-fashioned sense of the term (though perhaps not in the John Wayne sense), has the enthusiastic support of young people, even at the age of 75, and with an embarrassing tendency to fall asleep in public. His use of the Czech language is often problematic, as his voice is more of a deep incomprehensible growl then the sound of a polished politician. His wife and family have been exposed to nasty charges about their ability to even speak the language, and Zeman's campaign has targeted nursing homes to drive home the idea that Schwarzenberg is an interloper who lived for many years abroad, while Zeman has stayed "in our land" in Czechoslovakia his entire life.

But make no mistake, what appears at the outset to be a hapless candidate nevertheless was helped by an incredible online presence, the support of movie stars, singers, and dissidents, and an authenticity that money can't buy. For American readers, this may sound familiar at first, but sometimes the best way to be "cool" is to not act too young, too polished, and too hip. It's why young people are wearing garish yellow-and-hot-pink pins with "Karel for President" written in English and a punk-rock mohawk photoshopped onto the senior candidate's head. On one level, it's a supremely ironic look. On the other, it actually makes the Duke into the poster boy of the future.

And the fact that money can't buy Schwarzenberg is not lost on the Czech population. Indeed, many Czechs are comfortable with a rich Austrian aristocrat as the next head of state precisely because he's too wealthy to be bought, and concerns about corruption are never far from voters' minds. Moreover, in many ways Schwarzenberg is the last of a different old guard. As this article in the HuffPo outlines, Schwarzenberg was a critical player in Václav Havel's inner circle, and has been a tireless advocate for human rights in the world, and the Havel's widow has also come out in support of him. He has stayed clean while other members of the party that he in fact heads have taken extremely unpopular positions on austerity and budget matters (Schwarzenberg is a centrist, but his party is rather conservative on the economic side), as well as corruption scandals that have engulfed the Czech right.

Both candidates would be less Euro-skeptic than the current President, the controversial Hayekian Václav Klaus, known for his skepticism not just on the European Union, but also on climate change. However, Zeman is also considerably more sanguine about the Czechs' relations with Russia, and his brand of populism could turn just as quickly on the European Union as it has on the Czech domestic scene. For this reason, it's no wonder that polls of Czechs abroad have overwhelmingly broken for the Duke over the squire ("Zeman" means "Squire" in Czech, and Zeman has made a few tasteless jokes to this effect). Relations with the US would almost certainly be better under a President Schwarzenberg, regardless of who is in Washington, than the populist Zeman, who appeals to the "good-old-days" voters of the Communist Party and the rump paranoid left that still plays a role in politics here.

In this way, the Czech Republic faces a choice in the coming couple of days. While the post of President in the Czech Republic is a largely ceremonial post, both of the next President's predecessors fully exploited the bully pulpit to orient the Czech Republic's international and domestic politics. Both candidates have promised to rethaw relations with Europe; whether this is done for the right reasons – to reclaim this small country's place in the world as a tireless advocate for the rights of man – or the wrong ones – to play Russia and Europe against each other – will be decided this weekend.

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