Leftist Zeman wins Czech presidency, trumps aristocrat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 11:55pm


Czechs chose outspoken veteran leftist Milos Zeman, an ex-premier, as their new president in the Saturday runoff of the Czech Republic’s first direct election, defeating Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, an aristocrat whose Sex Pistols-inspired social media campaign fell flat.

The burly, silver-haired Zeman garnered 54.82-per cent support with virtually all votes counted, against 45.17 per cent for Schwarzenberg, having also won the January 11-12 first round in a field of nine rivals.

“Milos Zeman has won, I acknowledge this, and I hope he will manage to be the president of all Czech people,” Schwarzenberg conceded as the final results rolled in Saturday.

His victory ends a decade under strident eurosceptic outgoing President Vaclav Klaus, 71, with Zeman, 68, having a decidedly Europe-friendly approach.

In 1998-2002, Zeman’s leftist government helped negotiate his country’s 2004 EU accession and Zeman is now a self-described “euro-federalist.”

“I promise that as a president elected in a direct vote by citizens, I will do my best to be the voice of all citizens,” Zeman said in his victory speech at a Prague hotel, as overjoyed supporters chanted “Long live Zeman”.

“We can safely assume Milos Zeman will take a more favourable stance towards the EU,” Tomas Lebeda, a political analyst at Charles University in Prague, told AFP.

“Of course he is no hardline euro-optimist, but he will take a much more rational stance than Vaclav Klaus, he’s a pro-European president,” he added.

The campaign revolved around issues related to the EU, corruption, an economy in recession and painful austerity cuts in the Czech Republic, a central European country of 10.5 million.

Zeman’s campaign focused largely on “voters from lower-income groups, older and less educated,” political analyst Josef Mlejnek observed.

Voters giving Zeman, an economist, their support at the ballot box pointed to his traditionally leftist approach to social spending -- that critics label populist -- and to religion.

“I’m against school fees, and the restitution of (Catholic) Church properties (nationalised under communism). This is why I chose Zeman,” Prague university student Gabriela Peresta told AFP, referring to policies of the centre-right government to which Schwarzenberg belongs.

In his campaign, the outspoken leftist famous for not mincing his words skewered Schwarzenberg for being part of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s administration, responsible for a biting austerity drive amid recession.

The Czech Republic, heavily reliant on car exports to Western Europe, notably to Germany, sank into recession a year ago amid the eurozone crisis, after posting 1.9-percent growth in 2011.

A 0.9-percent contraction is forecast for 2012, ahead of a pickup to 0.2 per cent growth this year. Unemployment stood at 9.4 per cent in December.

But Zeman himself has been put under the microscope for alleged corruption over his links to former communist apparatchik Miroslav Slouf, suspected of mafia ties.

Analysts note Zeman’s victory is likely to mean hard times for Necas’s wobbly centre-right government relying for survival on a very thin margin of support from independent members of parliament.

In the election run-up, analysts had said age would count at the ballot box, suggesting wrongly that Schwarzenberg’s youth-focused campaign could swing the vote after he lost the first round by a whisker -- just 0.82 per cent.

A well-connected and independently wealthy former presidential aide to Czech Velvet Revolution icon Vaclav Havel, Schwarzenberg trumped Zeman online, scoring more than half a million “likes” on his Facebook campaign page, but fell flat at the ballot box.

Dubbed “The Prince” for his noble roots, he tried to woo young voters with a punked-out Mohawk hairdo in yellow-and-fuchsia pink pop-art “Karel Is not Dead!” and “Karel for PreSIDent” campaign posters, reminiscent of Britain’s Sex Pistols band album covers.

Czech presidents were elected by parliament until lawmakers approved the switch to universal suffrage in February 2012 to boost the legitimacy of the office amid criticism their choices were dictated by back-room political horse trading.

The presidency is largely ceremonial, with powers limited primarily to appointing the prime minister, central bankers and top judges.