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Czechs give direct election a try

The Czech Republic has held its first direct election for the presidency, to replace the idiosyncratic Václav Klaus. It shows a party system in some disarray.

Apologies for the inaccessibility of this blog over the weekend; it was due to technical issues which the IT people assure me are now fixed.

The weekend’s most interesting electoral event was the Czech presidential election, the first time Czechs have voted directly for a president. Previous presidents were elected by a joint session of parliament (the Czech Republic has a Westminster system like ours, where the head of state has no independent executive power), but a constitutional amendment a year ago introduced direct election.

The impetus for the change came apparently from dissatisfaction with the last election, in 2008, when incumbent Václav Klaus won a second term. Klaus was once known as a distinguished economist who was instrumental in Czechoslovakia’s transition to democracy, but is now more famous as a crank eurosceptic and climate denialist.

But the Czech Republic is notable for having two rival conservative parties, currently governing in coalition: Klaus’s old party, the Civic Democrats (ODS), and “TOP 09″, led by foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg. (According to Wikipedia, TOP stands for “Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity”.) On the evidence of Saturday’s vote, the ODS is in some trouble – its candidate, Přemysl Sobotka, came eighth out of nine candidates with just 2.5%.

Schwarzenberg, on the other hand, scored a surprisingly strong showing with 23.4%, just behind former Social Democrat prime minister Miloš Zeman on 24.2%. They will now contest the second round vote on 25-26 January. (Official results are here.)

Zeman is quoted saying “It will be a presidential race between a candidate for the left and a candidate for the right,” but in fact the runoff seems anything but that simple. Although Schwarzenberg sits in a conservative government, he sounds a lot like a liberal: he was a close colleague of Václav Havel and draws support especially from “the young … the educated urban residents and the social networks”, as Le Monde puts it.

Zeman, however, having broken away from the Social Democrats, is most known for his rabidly anti-Muslim views and may now be closer to Klaus’s position. Recent reports say that Klaus has “indirectly indicated his possible support to Zeman”, which may or may not be of some use to him, since of course he is hoping to capitalise on discontent with the present government.

Either way, it looks like being a very interesting second round. Stay tuned.

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