Aristocrat, Leftist Square Off in Czech Presidential Election

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg attends a European People's Party summit in Brussels, March 1, 2012

Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg attends a European People’s Party summit in Brussels, March 1, 2012 (EPP)

Former Czech prime minister Miloš Zeman faces a tough election challenge from aristocrat Karel Schwarzenberg on Friday and Saturday in the second round of the Central European country’s presidential vote. Whichever candidate wins is likely to correct outgoing president Václav Klaus’ Euroskepticism in favor of a more conciliatory policy toward the rest of the continent.

Zeman, a social democrat who emerged as the frontrunner from the first election round earlier this month, framed the runoff as a choice “between a candidate from the left and one of the right” in an attempt to tap into voters’ dissatisfaction with the conservative government which has cut public spending, raised taxes and reined in pension payments to keep the nation’s budget shortfall under 3 percent of gross domestic product as prescribed by European fiscal treaty.

Schwarzenberg, a libertarian and the incumbent foreign minister, came in a surprisingly strong second in the first round of the election with 23 percent of the votes, knocking early favorite Jan Fischer, another former premier, out of the race. His popularity stems in part from the fact that he is untainted by corruption scandals while many Czech voters are suspicious of Zeman’s Communist past. Schwarzenberg has also made more of an effort to reach out to young voters.

While they hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the candidates are both supportive of deeper economic and political integration in Europe. Schwarzenberg cautioned that the Czech Republic is “in the heart of Europe, so we shouldn’t be an island.” They also favor eventually joining the euro.

“That is sure to raise a smile in Brussels,” reports The Prague Post, “where the fiercely Euroskeptic Klaus has long drawn the ire of EU leaders for his vociferous opposition” to the bloc, notably in 2009 when he stalled on signing the Lisbon Treaty that strengthened European Union institutions.

While the Czech president’s powers are limited on a day to day basis, he can block legislation and appoints central bankers and judges. He also has the authority to dissolve parliament.

Schwarzenberg and Zeman agree on the need for political reform but differ on the specifics. The former wants a first past the post system as exists in the United Kingdom for electing deputies. Zeman would rather enhance the powers of the Senate whose veto can currently be overridden by the lower house of parliament. Neither will be able to implement such constitutional reforms without the support of the legislature, however.