I Attended A Presidential Debate!!!


So my years of studying Czech politics have now reached a temporary highpoint: I was in the audience of today’s presidential debate. The second round of the elections is on Friday and Saturday, and today the two remaining candidates, Karel Schwarzenberg and Miloš Zeman, squared off for another debate. They appeared in front of an audience of 200-300 people and discussed issues for about two hours in a debate that was organized by daily MF Dnes. It was not televized and so far I have not seen much commentary on it elsewhere, but Dnes has a pretty extensive overview and a bunch of photos. You can see me in photo 2/18, all the way in the back to the left. I have my grey hoodie on and as you can tell, I got a haircut.

The debate was not too much of a debate (much less a ‘duel’, as it was advertized) – the candidates did not really interact or exchange views, they mostly answered questions that the moderators and some audience members addressed to them. Still, it was interesting enough and pretty cool to see two high-profile Czech politicians in the flesh. For me as a foreigner, the debate was still easy enough to follow, except that Schwarzenberg is a terrible public speaker. A bit of a running joke throughout this campaign, he sounds almost as though he is a stroke victim (and indeed, this was mentioned by the debate leaders right off the bat as one of the things that bother voters the most about Schwarzenberg). Zeman, on the other hand, has great diction, which endears him to me even though I don’t necessarily like his standpoints better than Schwarzenberg’s platform – it’s just that I happen to understand him when he speaks.

A lot of the debate centered around a discussion that has recently dominated the campaign, over the WWII past, including Schwarzenberg’s families involvement in it, whether Schwarzenberg’s father was a Czech patriot or not, whether Schwarzenberg himself is really Czech given his families past and the fact that he spent most of his life outside Czechoslovakia, and how to interpret the episode in Czechoslovakia’s immediate post-war history when all the Germans were expelled. This move, sanctioned by the ‘Beneš decrees‘ (not a Ludlum novel), saw the expulsion of millions of Sudeten Germans from the Czech borderlands. Tens of thousands died during this period which divides Czech society to this day (and which overshadows its relations with  its neighbors). It has gained importance on the political agenda with EU accession, which has caused fears in the Czech Republic of Germans returning to reclaim their property.

Almost everyone in Czech politics thinks that the Beneš decrees should be seen in their historical context (ie because the Germans were responsible for the war, expelling them was appropriate) and that even if in retrospect it was a regrettable move this should not lead to a revision of current property relations (ie finders keepers). There is some divergence where it comes to the degree to which the Beneš decrees were in fact a violation of international law and/or morality more generally. During a debate last week, Schwarzenberg said that, if issued today, the decrees would land Beneš in front of ‘the court in The Hague’. This caused president Klaus to enter the campaign and allowed Zeman to pounce on this to paint Schwarzenberg as a foreigner, someone whose family consorted with Nazis, and someone who ‘talks like a Sudeten German’. While he apologized for this during today’s debate, he reiterated that he rejects the notion that the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans was a war crime or genocide, or that the situation would be comparable to Yugoslavia in the 1990s (which is not what Schwarzenberg is saying). Of course, both candidates ignore that The Hague has several international courts in addition to the Yugoslavia tribunal (I think that the ICC could prosecute things that would not classify as genocide or even war crimes more generally). In any case, another fine example of the strong focus inside Czech politics on the not-so-recent past.


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