Leftist Former Premier Wins Czech Presidency

The new Czech leader is expected to advocate a more pro-European policy for the country.

Inside the Prague Castle, residence of the Czech president, July 2004
Inside the Prague Castle, residence of the Czech president, July 2004 (Natalia Romay)

Former Czech prime minister Miloš Zeman won his country’s presidential runoff election on Saturday with 55 percent of the votes compared to 45 percent for the libertarian candidate and incumbent foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Zeman, who was a Communist Party member before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, played a key role in the revival of the Czech Social Democratic Party after the end of the Cold War which he led as premier between 1998 to 2002. He tried and failed to win its presidential nomination in 2003 after which he retired from politics.

Especially young and urban voters were skeptical of Zeman’s past and swayed by the incorruptible Schwarzenberg who carried a fiscally conservative party that he helped establish in 2009 to a third place finish in 2010’s parliamentary election. It is now part of the country’s right-wing government. Zeman, who framed the election as a choice “between a candidate from the left and one of the right,” managed to tap into especially rural and working-class voters’ dissatisfaction with the ruling parties which have cut public spending, raised taxes and reined in pension payments to keep the Czech Republic’s budget shortfall under 3 percent of gross domestic product as prescribed by European fiscal treaty. “I want to be president of the bottom ten million,” he said.

Schwarzenberg can stay on as foreign minister while Zeman is set to replace outgoing president Václav Klaus in March. He is expected to advocate a more pro-European policy than Klaus who has been critical of political union in Europe and famously stalled on ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 which 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.

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