Without actually naming any names, the outgoing Czech president, Václav Klaus, appears to have endorsed Miloš Zeman ahead of the second round of the election to succeed him at Prague Castle. Mr Klaus said he hoped his successor would be someone who has spent his life in this country – which would rule out Mr. Zeman’s rival Karel Schwarzenberg, who spent 40 years abroad. But what effect will Mr Klaus’ comments have on the race?
In a brief interview for Czech Radio on a ski slope in south Bohemia on Thursday, President Václav Klaus finally spoke about his favourite in the second round of the Czech presidential elections, which gets underway in eight days. The outgoing head of state, whose second and final term at the Castle ends in March, said his successor ought to be someone who has shared the country’s troubled fate.
“What’s important to me is that the next president is someone who belongs to this country, who is part of it and has spent his life here, has lived through its bad and good times. That’s my only concern. If anything has been important to me, it’s that this small country survives and does not dissolve in Europe like a sugar cube in a cup of coffee.”
It’s clear that Mr Klaus’ remarks only apply to one candidate. While former prime minister Miloš Zeman has lived all his life in this country, the foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, left Czechoslovakia with his aristocratic family in 1948, aged 11, to escape persecution by the communist regime. Over the next four decades, he lived on family estates in western Europe, mainly in Austria. Due to a centuries-old family tradition, he also holds a Swiss passport.
In a Czech Radio debate between the presidential candidates on Wednesday, Mr Schwarzenberg addressed the concerns of a listener who accused him of being a foreigner.
“As for me being labelled an Austrian – it’s true that I lived there for a long time but I have never been a citizen of that country. I have never given up my Czechoslovak citizenship. But I have been faced with this prejudice all my life and I’m used to it. Some things are just thrown at you and there is nothing you can do about it. Another matter altogether is that in 1948 I left this country involuntarily.”
The question is what impact Mr Klaus’ endorsement of Miloš Zeman might have on the race. Those who voted for Mr Schwarzenberg in the first round probably know his life story well already. With Václav Klaus being the divisive figure he is, and his recent amnesty causing such an uproar, his recommendation could in fact benefit his rival, says commentator Jiří Pehe.
“Endorsing someone like Zeman might seem Mr Klaus wants a politician for president who will follow in his footsteps. But to follow in Klaus’ footsteps right now may not be the most popular thing one can do. So I would argue this may not be what some commentators ironically described as a ‘kiss of death’ but at the same time, it’s not something that would help Miloš Zeman. In fact, it might help Karel Schwarzenberg.”