How does and how much Milos Zeman reflect the Czech nation?

Read few comments. Former PM Zeman beat current FM Karel Schwarzenberg in the run-off presidential election.

Sean HanleySenior Lecturer in East European Politics, University College London

The question of the candidates’ affinities with the Czech nation and ‘Czechness’ would probably not have come up, but for the unusual and highly atypical background of Karel Schwarzenberg – a representative of a rare social group: a Czech aristocrat.

Leaving aside the simple fact of the voting figures – which I think Zeman certainly reflects the Czech nation or very large sections of it: he is from a modest background; lives in provinces; owns a chata; likes a drink and cigarette; supported the Prague Spring, lived through normalisation without being a dissident; is well educated without being obviously intellectual and so on.

Although, the candidate himself always rather ponderously made a point of letting us know about his erudition through the obligatory citations of various authors, Zeman’s campaign clearly traded on his ‘man of the people’ quality and targeted a ‘Czech nation’ that was provincial, small town and economically not so well off – a huge and somewhat overlooked slice of Czech society. One of his second round ‘spots’ makes this point very effectively.

It is also interesting to ask whether voters in fact want to be represented by people who not only reflect their views but are like them socially and culturally (what political scientists term ‘descriptive representation’). In the case of the Czech presidents this has *not* necessarily the case. The model for Czech presidents has been that of the ‘philosopher king’ – a member of the Czech intelligenstia, who is a thinker as well as politician. Masaryk and Havel obviously fit this model, Klaus (and Benes) approximated to it. Zeman (at least as we know him from his public political persona), while very much part of the Czech political class, fit this model much less well and may mark a break with Czech tradition. It will be interesting to see how he plays it as President.

Martin MyantProfessor, University of the West of Scotland

Any substantial comment on whether Zeman reflects the Czech nation should wait for a more detailed breakdown of which groups in society voted for which candidate and why. In the meantime, we can make some preliminary comments only;

1. Both presidential candidates performed well in relation to voting intentions for their own parties, as shown in recent opinion polls. They also performed well when set against a division between left and right. Zeman received more votes than those intending to vote for the Social Democrats plus Communists plus his own party. Schwarzenberg won the support of more than twice the number of voters intending to support ODS plus TOP09, as indicated in recent polls. Perceptions of personalities clearly count for a lot and party affiliations continue to be less important than is the case in long-established democracies in western Europe.

2. Schwarzenberg’s success, and his generally high level of public trust, is quite remarkable. His aristocratic background and manner, his unusual way of speaking the language of the country he intended to lead, his presence in an unpopular government and the frequently idiosyncratic and individual judgements he makes on current policy issues would suggest a much lower vote. Instead, he was able to gain support from part of a younger generation that saw him as the more outward-looking and internationally-oriented of the candidates. That may say something about how Zeman was perceived.

3. Zeman’s support went beyond the political left, which generally gave him support. Fears of having an Austrian aristocrat as president may have helped him, encouraging support from among others Klaus, but he anyway had a solid chance from the positive features referred to in my previous contribution.

4. Much of the opposition to Zeman could come from his association with the political left, from accusations of links to corrupt figures (albeit not particularly powerful in the current Czech context), to his arrogant style and to a perception that he does not fit on an international stage. Schwarzenberg definitely could not be accused of the first of these and his style of presentation appears more modest and considered.

5. A number of further points could lead to a vote against Zeman. He does not show much knowledge of the outside world and has notoriously expressed negative views on islam which would be very difficult to maintain in a country where people work beside and/or know that may muslims are quite different from his portrayal. His views on women’s issues include the occasional misogynist references in his jokes which cause some inevitable offence. On global warming he has expressed a similarly sceptical view to that of his predecessor. A politician in a multicultural society with scope for all groups to express opinions with confidence and with a strong and confident scientific community could expect serious trouble from expressing such views. Hopefully evidence from opinion poll results will help to show whether these kind of issues damaged Zeman’s support or whether they were not much of a problem in the Czech context. Indeed, Schwarzenberg is not free from similar criticisms on some of his references to women and he too has a very simplistic view of the Middle East.

6. If this says anything important about Czech society then it is that a confident civil society has yet to take shape and that Czechs are still worried about their status in the world. Voters were attracted to one candidate whose credentials were to a great extent the degree to which he appeared different from them and a break from the country’s introspection. The winner appeared confident and capable. The fact that he is wrong on much that he is confident about either was not noticed or not seen to be important by enough people to prevent him from winning.

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

For both candidates:

I am skeptical of the idea of a uniquely “Czech nation”—I think there is more variation of people within any nation than between any two nations.

I’m not convinced there is anything uniquely Czech about Zeman. If he had moved back to Vrutky instead of Vysočina, would there be anything about his politics or personality that would not identify him as “typically Slovak”—and the same goes for Hungary, or Poland and maybe even Austrian or Bavarian or Italian. Zeman has many of the personal and political characteristics of successful politicians with a center-left profile across the region.


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