Czechs to vote for new president: Why is Milos Zeman still able to attract voters?

Former leftist PM Milos Zeman is one of the front-runners (see the opinion poll). Zeman is a political veteran but for quite some time he was not active on the political scene. The first direct presidential election in the Czech Republic will be held today and tomorrow. As it is almost for sure that no candidate receives 50 percent plus one vote in the first round, a second round will be held on 25–26 January.

Martin MyantProfessor, University of the West of Scotland

If opinion polls are correct Miloš Zeman will come first in the first round of the presidential election with about 25% of the vote. Polls can be wrong, but this prediction is not unlikely in view of the responses to his meetings and to television debates. It represents a considerable increase from the votes his party has been securing in parliamentary and regional elections and that suggests that his personality must be crucial. Indeed, the party bears his name and much of its purpose is therefore the promotion of him as an individual.

His success can be attributed to his ability to present a political message that is in tune with his personality. The following factors have been important in making that possible;

1. He has enough committed supporters in a country where organised parties are relatively small. He can hold meetings and ensure television studio audiences are oversubscribed. Financial details published on his campaign website suggest a considerable number of individual donations and a few from companies.

2. He can present himself as someone with considerable political experience over a long period of time, but nothing that he sees any need to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. He bowed out as prime minister without suffering political defeat or being caught up in a scandal.

3. As a politician he has the ability to speak with certainty and confidence and knows how to attack and demolish opponents. He is also witty and entertaining, both rather unusual features among contemporary politicians. Once he came back into the public arena and started campaigning, these features enabled support to grow.

The policy he puts across, and expresses with clarity and consistency, starts from an analysis of the problem he thinks he could put right. Politicians, he says, suffer from low prestige in society. They are seen as ‘thieves and idiots and in some cases both at the same time’. The President should aim to ‘get them to behave in such a way that the public would view them somewhat better than they do now’. For this, his argument runs, the President should be active (a role by implication beyond the ‘faded office worker’ who is his main rival) and play a role in calming conflicts and proposing solutions. He cannot resist the comment that problems stem from a ‘weak government’ confronted by a ‘weak opposition’ while the need is for strong government and strong opposition ‘of whatever kind they may be’.

It is a skilful blend of claiming to be above party politics (his party is too small to count) while proposing a very substantial political role. What it would actually mean in practice will only become clear should he win the election.

Policies that Zeman would favour are given far less emphasis than his personal qualities. In fact, much of his policy agenda is reasonably close to that of the Social Democrats, with similar caution over how to handle economic difficulties but some commitment to restoring a significant progressive element in personal income tax.

Needless to say, he is not universally liked. There will always be a strong vote against him, not least because he is identified with the left. Apart from that, he is arrogant, capable of pronouncing on issues about which he knows very little and openly contemptuous even of many of the colleagues who worked with him in the past. However, his contempt for the current government and opposition alike has an obvious appeal with the electorate.

Sean Hanley, Senior Lecturer in East European Politics, University College London

I think Zeman’s success stems from a number of factors:

1. He is a very well known figure for many voters and a known quantity for many voters. His big political personality and experience as Prime Minister also makes him a reasonably credible figure for high office. His flaws are also well known and may therefore be discounted in advance by voters.

2. At the same time, having been out of national politics for 8-10 years and broken his links with CSSD, he can credibly position himself as something of anti-establishment outsider.

His candidacy comes at a time when Czechs are generally disillusioned with established parties and when CSSD had no experienced, high profile politician who could make a impact in the presidential race (or at least none who were acceptable across the party and willing to run – Vladimir Spidla might have been an option).

3. Zeman’s support is well organised and well financed (although there are question over where the money comes from). Zeman’s SPOZ was already a effective force in June 2010 and pulled in a surprising number of votes then and – as a reasonably good performance in the regional elections shown – has organisation on the ground. The collection of nominations signature was notably quick and efficient operation. (SPOZ has its roots in the Sdružení přátel Miloše Zemana founded a few years before by Miroslav Slouf).

4. Zeman has potentially broad appeal to a range of left-wing voters, including Communist voters who might be put off by a candidate with closer links to CSSD with associations to Havel or the dissident movement (e.g. Jiri Dienstbier jr). He has rather cleverly tacked towards some KSCM positions, for example his critical sounding remarks about the EU.

Notwithstanding the Opposition Agreement, from a left-wing point of the point of Zeman’s time in front-line politics can be seen reasonably politically successful. Zeman also left office at a time of his own choosing, rather than because of crisis, scandal or electoral defeat.

5. Zeman has been underestimated by opponents, despite the low key but obvious momentum he has had since 2010. He has been viewed a something of a political has-been or a buffoon.

6. Despite some journalists asking after his funding and Lukoil connections – Zeman has faced little critical opposition in the campaign or scrutiny as to one what kind of a president he would be. The main political parties (ODS, CSSD, TOP09) seem have written off their chances of their candidates and to be saving their time, energy and money for parliamentary elections.

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Wayne State University

My guess is that Zeman is in a sense the last “big man” standing on the left.  He did not go out in electoral failure like Paroubek and Spidla; he did not go out in scandal like Gross.  His tenure was not perfect but was a period of economic recovery and (relatively) scandal free at the top.  And he’s managed to tap into some cultural themes that may reinforce some of his economic themes. Plus, people know that the Czech Presidency really isn’t all that important, so name and memory may be important.

Karen Henderson, Senior Lecturer, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

In a presidential election, many voters are interested in personalities and simple messages, so a well-known name with a political track record can have an advantage. It may also in some way be important that Czechs in democratic times have always had a prominent politician as president.

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