Czech Presidential Elections – some thoughts as the results come in

So today was the last of two days of voting in the first round of the Czech presidential elections – and the first of more than 120 days of me doing field research in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in East and Central Europe. Both are very exciting. As for the elections, it looks like Miloš Zeman might be taking the first round and that Count Karel Schwarzenberg could come in second (as of 15:40 on 12 January). The race for second place is more exciting than that for first – Jan Fischer and Jiří Dienstbier still have a shot. So here’s a few things that are interesting (to me) about these preliminary results:

  • Back to the 1990s – Along with his possible predecessors Havel and Klaus, Miloš Zeman is the quintessential 1990s politician, the face of the period immediately after the fall of communism. He was the brain behind the opoziční smlouva that I wrote about before, when his ČSSD (of which he is now no longer a member) led a minority government between 1998 and 2002. He is known for making acerbic comments especially regarding journalists (they’re scum) and his love of Becherovka (the popular Czech herb liquor). The social democrats got rid of Zeman and he ended up leaving the party. It is remarkable that this figure of (relatively) older politics, tainted by the earlier period of post-communist democracy, should attract so much more votes than a number of newer faces
  • Non-partisan politics – The candidates that are most clearly backed by the big parties in parliament now (ODS,ČSSD, etc.) are all faring relatively poorly. Especially the ODS candidate (Přemysl Sobotka) is doing very poorly – it looks like he’s only getting 2 or 3 percent of the vote, making his the worst showing of all the nine contenders in the field as of yet (here are the 16:00 results). Zeman’s is officially affiliated with a party of his own making (but one that is not in parliament) and Fischer is unaffiliated. Like Havel and Klaus (who ended up leaving the ODS) before them, these politicians choose to go it alone and seem to do quite well without the ideological and logistical support of a party. Reminds me of that Henry Hale piece Why Not Parties in Russia?
  • Fragmented politics – with nine contenders, and the most succesful candidate scoring just north of 25% of the vote, it looks like there is a lot of fragmentation in the system. This is unfortunate from the point of view of the majoritarian nature of having a directly elected president – whoever wins the next round will have had the initial support of less than 25% of the voters
  • The role of the communist past in post-communist politics. These elections offer further evidence for my thesis that views on the meaning of the communist past form an important cleavage in post-communist countries, especially in the Czech Republic. I discussed this in several posts, pointing out how Jan Fischer’s past in the Czechoslovakian CP bothered him in this campaign. While he was initially a favorite, his campaign appears to fall short in the end. According to the Lidové Noviny that I bought in the supermarket today, his past in the KSČ was his main handicap and contributed to his campaign ‘losing momentum’ (I hate that term because I don’t think the metaphor applies to human behavior in a lot of cases, but as this is an election commentary post, I think that as per the wordpress terms of use I am obliged to use it).

More updates to follow both on these elections (second round in two weeks) and on my fieldwork!

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