Presidential Election: Czech Voters Yearn for Substance over Scandal

By Jan Puhl

For the first time since the Velvet Revolution, citizens in the Czech Republic will have the opportunity to vote directly for their head of state in two weeks. Former Prime Minister Milos Zeman is in the pole position. His tough-talking style appeals to Czechs who are tired of back room deals and a scandal-plagued leadership.

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Miloš Zeman has set up his campaign headquarters close to his ultimate goal: His headquarters are in an historic building in the old town, close to Prague Castle, which also serves as the Czech Republic's presidential palace. The candidate lights one cigarette after another, now and then pouring himself a bit more Bohemian white wine from a large carafe. As the smoke wafts around him, Zeman declares, "I want to be president."

In these days of smoking bans across the European Union, an inhaling head of state might be something of an issue. In the Czech Republic, though, Zeman wins points for his joie de vivre.

Since the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the country's presidents have been chosen by the parliament in Prague. But in January, Czechs will elect their head of state directly for the very first time -- and that is good for Miloš Zeman. The candidate presents himself as a man of the people, coarse and direct. Polls show him in the lead, and it seems likely that he will end up in a run-off election against former Prime Minister Jan Fischer.

"I'm in favor of the EU, but against Brussels regulating things like toilets," Zeman says. If he wins, it will bring a different tone to Prague Castle. Poet-President Václav Havel, who was the first to hold the office after the collapse of communism, was given to moralizing speeches. His successor Václav Klaus, the incumbent who is approaching the end of his second term, has tended to be professorial in manner. Zeman, in contrast, is casual and provincial as a matter of principle.

A Reputation for Coarseness

Born in 1944, Zeman aligned himself with the reformers during the Prague Spring of 1968. After Warsaw Pact troops crushed the revolution, Zeman eked out a living running a gym. When the communist system collapsed, he joined the Czech Social Democratic Party, which he led to victory in the 1990s, and served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, a time when the newly privatized economy was growing and the country was seen as a model pupil of capitalism.

But even then, Zeman gained himself a reputation for his coarse manner, deriding some journalists as "hyenas" and describing Erika Steinbach, the controversial president of an organization that represents Germans expelled from Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere after World War II, as "a voice of hate." But the statement that garnered the most attention in Germany was Zeman's assertion that ethnic Germans in prewar Czechoslovakia, the so-called Sudeten Germans, had been "Hitler's fifth column." Historically speaking, he's not wrong -- 68 percent of Sudeten Germans voted for Hitler ally Konrad Henlein's party in 1935 -- but Bavarian governor Edmund Stoiber demanded an apology. Zeman, of course, refused.

"All politicians are populists," the Czech presidential candidate says. His knack for boiling complex problems down to simple formulas has won him approval with Social Democratic voters. He also, however, has attracted unsatisfied voters not aligned with any party. Many of those are part of the middle class that emerged during the boom years of the 1990s and now faces the threat of unemployment as the euro crisis makes life difficult in the Czech Republic.

Zeman is seen as an honest soul, someone who "tells it like it is," in the words of Prague political scientist Robert Schuster.

Another factor in Zeman's favor is that he can present himself as anti-establishment, having left the Social Democratic Party years ago after serious disagreements with party head Jiří Paroubek. Zeman demonstratively withdrew to his dacha in South Bohemia, where he took up the role of the former statesman, appearing before TV cameras in stocking feet and sweaters to offer up his thoughts, whether in the form of advice or toxic praise. He kept himself involved in the public dialogue, but without becoming enmeshed in scandals and affairs.

'A Lump of Sugar in a Cup of Coffee'

The Czech Republic hasn't had a government in years that could count on a majority in parliament. The country's leaders find themselves in a perpetually precarious position, always having to beg for votes in parliament to support their more significant projects. Political decisions have migrated into back rooms, where posts are exchanged for votes over beer and dumplings. With new corruption scandals coming to light weekly, many Czechs are sick of their own politicians.

Zeman's squeaky-clean image, meanwhile, was only improved by a top gangster, since murdered, who commented during a conversation intercepted by the police that Zeman, unfortunately, couldn't be bribed. The politician wanted nothing more than "a sandwich, three pickles and for people to like him," lamented the gangster.

Unlike the incumbent President Klaus, Zeman takes a pro-Europe stance. Under Klaus' watch, Prague declined to sign the fiscal pact, with the president warning that Czech identity would "dissolve within the EU like a lump of sugar in a cup of coffee."

Zeman, on the other hand, declares, "I favor further steps toward integration," and believes the Czech Republic must adopt the euro, if not until the "distant future." Meanwhile, he says, the EU shouldn't be throwing so much money at Greece: "A country simply can't spend decades living beyond its means." The standard of living in the Czech Republic is lower than in Greece, and Czech voters may well reward Zeman for his tough talk.

The politician, for his part, approaches the EU with precisely the same independent-mindedness that Czechs so value in themselves. "Our nation will not disappear in the European Union," the candidate says and lights another cigarette.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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