Miloš Zeman – political veteran seeking to crown his career

One of the strong favourites in the upcoming direct presidential election is Miloš Zeman, a former prime minister and ex-leader of the Social Democrats. He promises to be a “people’s president” who would unite and moderate political conflicts. However, some would say that in his long career, the prickly Mr. Zeman did very little of that.

Miloš Zeman, photo: Šárka ŠevčíkováMiloš Zeman, photo: Šárka Ševčíková Miloš Zeman, who is 68, took part in the student march in November 1989 that triggered the Velvet Revolution. Four years later, he was elected chairman of the revived Social Democrats, whose support more than quadrupled under his leadership. Following his party’s victory in the 1998 elections, he became prime minister.

He was hoping to crown his career by becoming president in 2003, but lost out to Václav Klaus. Some MPs and senators from his own party refused to vote for him on that occasion, and Mr Zeman has apparently held a grudge ever since. Asked why he’s running again, his first reaction is a reference to the embarrassing defeat nine years ago.

“There was a change in the mode of the election. Now, up to eight million voters will decide who the next president will be, and you cannot really corrupt them. In contrast, you can corrupt at least some of the 281 MPs and Senators who previously elected the president. The other reason is the sorry state of Czech politics, which abounds in amateurs and not professionals who understand that politics is a craft you have to learn.”

A major criticism of Miloš Zeman focuses on a deal he made in 1998 with Mr Klaus, who was then leader of the right-wing Civic Democrats. The two signed a so-called “opposition agreement” which granted the Social Democrats support for a minority government. In exchange, many Civic Democrat politicians got lucrative jobs on boards of state-owned firms. While Mr Zeman says this is a practice common in established western democracies, critics say the “opposition agreement” disabled effective control of the government, and opened the door for corruption.

Václav Klaus, Miloš Zeman, photo: Office of the President of the Czech RepublicVáclav Klaus, Miloš Zeman, photo: Office of the President of the Czech Republic He has also come under fire for his choice of advisors and assistants. Since his days as prime minister, Mr Zeman’s key collaborator has been Miroslav Šlouf, a lobbyist with a history of political scandals. He also worked for the Russian oil giant Lukoil. That is another sensitive point surrounding Miloš Zeman’s bid – his campaign received money from the head of Lukoil’s Czech office, Martin Nejedlý. But the presidential candidate claims this was a personal donation.

“Martin Nejedlý is the head of Lukoil’s Czech office. He donated some 400,000 crowns of his own money to our campaign. In an official statement, Lukoil said they didn’t give us anything. This is just another defamation campaign.”

Last week, a survey of support for presidential candidates gave Miloš Zeman a slight lead, for the first time since the start of the campaign. If he reaches the second round of the vote, however, his past record and sometimes aggressive style could generate support for the other contender.