Czech presidential vote marks shift in EU relations

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The departure of eurosceptic Czech President Václav Klaus will open a new chapter in the country's relations with the EU, no matter who succeeds him in the run-off poll on 25-26 January, analysts say. EURACTIV Czech Republic reports. 

Social Democrat former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman will face Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in the second round after the two finished ahead of nine other candidates in the 11-12 January first round. It is the first time the president is being chosen by popular vote.

Zeman, 68, prime minister from 1996-2002, led the president of the Czech Social Democratic Party (?SSD), affiliated to the Party of European Socialists (PES), but broke up with the party after his unsuccessful running for president in 2003.

?SSD supporters nevertheless voted in large numbers for Zeman, to the detriment of their official candidate Ji?í Dienstbier. Zeman gained support mainly from smaller cities and villages.

Schwarzenberg, 75, is the president of the conservative party TOP 09, affiliated to the European Peoples’ party. TOP 09 is a member of the current government coalition, whose popularity is very low. Schwarzenberg comes from an old aristocratic family and has spent large part of his life abroad, but he nevertheless he succeeded in attracting the interest of many young and urban voters.

Positive stand on EU affairs

Both Zeman and Schwarzenberg are considered to have a rather positive uptake of the country’s EU membership. In comparison to Klaus, who is remembered for refusing to sign the Lisbon Treaty and for his strong eurosceptic opinions, analysts expect that the new president would bring about some changes in the relation of the Czech Republic with the EU.

>> Read: Klaus urged to sign Lisbon ‘without further delay’

Czech economist Jan Bureš said that both Zeman and Schwarzenberg would mark a great shift from the politics led by Klaus on EU affairs.

“In case of Schwarzenberg, there would be a U-turn. Miloš Zeman would also move towards more cooperative role, but he would take more pragmatic approach,” Bureš said.

Vladimír Handl from the Institute of international Relations in Prague also said that the future Czech president would herald a positive attitude to European integration.

“Both candidates will make an effort to bring the Czech Republic back to the mainstream of the EU, both will try,” Handl said, while stressing that Zeman and Schwarzenberg are both well experienced in EU affairs.

Ceremonial post

However, changes in EU relations could be limited since the Czech president plays largely a ceremonial role.

But Handl argued that both candidates would promote a more constructive approach and are oriented towards European integration on economic matters.

Klaus leaves office on 7 March. His eurosceptic declarations hurt the Czech Republic’s image in Brussels, including his opposition to the fiscal pact.

But Schwarzenberg has a more positive stance on the EU fiscal pact. As foreign minister, he got into a dispute with Prime Minister Petr Ne?as, who refused the fiscal agreement in March 2012. Schwarzenberg threatened that the ministers from his party would resign from the coalition government.

Zeman, who in interview with labelled himself as a “eurofederalist”, considers the fiscal pact to be “unnatural”.

>> Read: Czech Republic mulls referendum on fiscal pact

Nine candidates ran for Czech president, who for the first time is being selected by popular vote and not the Parliament.

The first round of the election, held 11-12 January, former Prime Minister Milo&scaron Zeman ;won 24.21%, followed by the current foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg (23.40 %). Another former prime minister, Jan Fischer, won16.35% and didn’t make it to the run-off. Ji?í Dienstbier, considered very pro-European, won 10.6%.

The second round will be held 25-26 January.

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