James de Candole of Candole Partners
January 30, 2013
Perhaps the most encouraging outcome of the Czech presidential election is that over one-third of the electorate chose the candidate that has become a symbol of their longing for fair play in public life. It bodes well for the future that so many voters place more value on how a politician wins power than on whether he wins power.
The runner-up Karel Schwarzenberg’s finest moments in the campaign for the presidential election on January 26 were his reluctance to sink to the level of his sneering and often vulgar opponent, and his tremendous good grace and humour in accepting defeat in spite of all the abuses that have been heaped upon him and his family by the current president and his successor.
Many mistake the man’s modesty, restraint and good manners as a measure of his irrelevance. In fact, they are the mark of a liberal mind and character. Schwarzenberg is an example of how the necessarily hypocritical art of politics is practised in a civilised society, never strident and mindful of the need for compromise. And the fact that so many people appreciate him in this way is encouraging.
Milos Zeman won the contest. Indeed, and in the act of winning, he has lowered himself and the office he has now secured. His electoral success teaches us many things, but above all it shows how skilled this ruling class is in hanging onto power. Once again, a popular election has taken place in which a transfer of power has been achieved from within the ranks of an ossified elite.
But many self-important feathers have been ruffled in the process. President Vaclav Klaus was visibly worried. The establishment poured money into the campaign of former PM Jan Fischer, presumably in order to provide Zeman with a plausible but easily beatable opponent in the second round.
The widespread excitement produced by Schwarzenberg’s first round success was genuine. And so was the anxiety, and later panic, that his success caused within the Zeman camp (which quickly became indistinguishable from the president’s office and family).
A more sophisticated electorate would have dismissed the xenophobic abuses that followed – the insinuations, the insults and the lies – as the snarling of an old dog in a corner, baring its rotting teeth in an attempt to distract you from the fact that it was no longer up to it.
But, just as Schwarzenberg is in tune with the hopes of his core constituency, and above all their hope for fair play in public life, so Zeman and Klaus understand the fears of their voters, and play to these fears with destructive glee.
If Zeman’s voters cared about the dismay his anti-German jibes caused abroad, they would not vote for him. The troubling thing is that, far from caring, many of them seem to relish this verbal abuse of the country’s largest export market and most powerful of European neighbours.
Samuel Johnson, like Milos Zeman, was a master of the "bon mot". He said that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". This might be true, at least until nationalism becomes more widely acceptable.
How much longer, I wonder, will Zeman need to claim that his xenophobia is really a love of country? And that is the point. A party politician that appeals to people’s lower instincts is undesirable; a head of state that does so is dangerous.
Zeman and Klaus reserve their deepest scorn for Schwarzenberg. Their public mocking of him hides an altogether more sinister predilection: an unwillingness to share power, not just with foreigners (unless they are Russian perhaps?), but with the next generation of Czechs.
Both Klaus and Zeman are ruthless in the pursuit of power, and once acquired, in preserving its indivisibility. They use and abuse the institutions around them to this end, as anyone in the governing Civic Democrats (ODS) party and opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) will surely confirm.
We should abandon the hope that the president-elect will work to restore legitimacy to a parliamentary system built upon genuine competition between parties. On the contrary, he holds these parties in undisguised contempt.
He is much more likely to exploit this loss of party political legitimacy in order to justify a more active role for himself and the elite to which he belongs. Like Klaus before him, he will want to reduce the limits on his presidential powers by undermining still further the credibility of the government and consequently the parliament to which it answers.
The president-elect’s new tactic is to dress up his lust for power in the rhetorical garb of technocracy, and the rejection of so-called amateurism. Unfortunately, it is not only his bodyguards that will be "professionalized". The whole government will be "professionalized" if Zeman has his way.
He has stated that he would like the next government to be a minority government, with the support of the strongest opposition party – in other words an opposition agreement.
If we want to know how Zeman will behave as president, we need not speculate. It is enough to look at how he ran his presidential campaign, which, we are told, was funded by a Russian oil company and masterminded by Miroslav Slouf, and which latterly came to depend so much upon the endorsement of his "ideological foe", Vaclav Klaus. He has denied both allegations. But then he denies many things which are true, as we discovered over the last two weeks. And he asserts as truth things which later turn out to be lies.
Klaus and Zeman are in fact two sides of the same coin. There are significant differences between them, and these differences will exacerbate rather than mollify Zeman’s authoritarian instincts.
Same but different
The first difference is that Klaus as president lacked the legitimacy bestowed upon Zeman as the winner of a popular election, and so had to be more cunning and more circumspect in his manipulation. Zeman will use his popular mandate to extend his powers wherever he can.
The second is that Zeman’s abundant pent-up frustration after a decade out of power (one frustration at least that Klaus never suffered from) will now explode.
President-elect Zeman will soon turn his attention to the Constitutional Court. Ten of the 15 seats on the Court will become available this year.
Zeman will become more Klausian even than Vaclav Klaus. How are we meant to interpret his offer to Jiri Weigl to remain as the head of the president’s office (after ten years of "professional service" for President Klaus in that role) other than mockery?
The ODS and CSSD will find it very hard to manage a resurgent Zeman in office, just as they found it hard actively to oppose him as the second round candidate. As I have written elsewhere, it was clearly in their separate, partisan interest to discourage people from voting for Zeman, and yet neither was able to pluck up the courage to do so.
Jiri Diensbier will now be marginalised by a nervous CSSD eager to reach some accommodation with the new president. ODS is simply terrified, knowing full well that it will be obliterated in early elections. And the Communists are happy.
And TOP 09? We must hope that Karel Schwarzenberg will use his enormous popular legitimacy actively to oppose attempts by Zeman to overreach his powers. Early elections are now in TOP 09's interest (though not perhaps in the interests of Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek), although I wonder how much fight Schwarzenberg has left in him. It seems to me more probable that his diffidence will now return. What makes for a good president does not necessarily make for a good party politician.
As for Miroslav Kalousek, he will quickly try to seek an accommodation with the new president. The uncertainty is not so much whether he will do so but whether he does so before Zeman’s "STOP Kalouskovi na hrade" billboards disappear from the streets.
The fact is that the people of this country may have been deeply divided by the personalities of the two presidential candidates, but the political elite has not been split in any meaningful way.
If you disagree with the conclusion that the political elite remains essentially undivided, look at nuclear power and the Temelin "debate". For the first time ever, we heard a senior politician (Schwarzenberg) express the view that the economics of the Temelin project might be more important than the politics of the project. This is heresy.
Jiri Leschtina of the daily Hospodarske Noviny says that the president-elect might want to bring down the government of Prime Minister Petr Necas and install a technocratic government because of Temelin. Well, yes, but because of disagreement over who will get to build the two new reactors, not because of disagreement over the vastly more important question of whether Temelin 3&4 should get built at all. This is a question that no politician dare even ask.
The political elite is united behind an a priori need to build more nuclear reactors, regardless of rapidly changing economic conditions quite beyond their control. Zeman’s ascendancy to the castle merely props up a Russian as opposed to an American bid. This is important for the bidders and a handful of rent seeking Czech politicians and businessmen. But it is not important for the citizens of this country, who will be expected to pay for it all, whoever wins.
Likewise, the political elite are more or less united behind the requirement to keep outsiders out of political office, German-speaking or otherwise, regardless of changing social aspirations way beyond their control. Zeman’s ascendancy to the castle merely shores up this set of cronies rather than that set of cronies.
I can see this is quite important for the cronies (but not that important given they all do business with each other – this is a cartel after all). But it is entirely irrelevant to the citizens of this country, who will be made to pay regardless of which crony is hired, professional or otherwise.
In short, we shall now live through the consequences of the steady hollowing-out of the institutions of a free society that has occurred under Klaus and Zeman over the last two decades.