UPDATE: In the final week, the Czech presidential race opened up. Jan Fischer performed poorly in the debates, and the Czech Republic’s aristocratic foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg, picked up support from two sources: those who disliked both Zeman and Fischer, and those from the centre-right who started to doubt Fischer’s viability in a run-off against Zeman. After an exciting final week, Schwarzenberg prevailed over Fischer, and will face a run-off against Zeman on 25th/26th January.
Original text: On the 11th and 12th of January, the people of the Czech Republic will vote in direct presidential elections for the first time. Although there are nine candidates in total, the real race is between two front-runners. Both are former prime ministers: a business-friendly independent, Jan Fischer, and a veteran leftist, Milos Zeman.
The introduction of direct presidential elections after more than two decades of democratic consolidation is an interesting development. Until now, the post has been filled by indirect elections in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. The figurehead role was initially uncontroversial, being filled for the first ten years by the revered dissident playwright, Vaclav Havel. However, when Havel’s term came to an end in 2003, the more divisive Vaclav Klaus occupied ‘The Castle’. Klaus’s re-election in 2008 was contentious — his victory was narrow, and the vote marred by allegations of bribery and corruption — hence the pressure to change.
Whether the rough and tumble of a traditional Czech election campaign will be any more edifying remains to be seen. Plenty of mud is being slung over alleged campaign financing irregularities and accusations that ‘supporters’ have been paid for their participation. In any event, the powers of the presidency remain largely ceremonial and, from that perspective at least, little is likely to change.