Czech presidential election highlights sharp divide over EU

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The Czech parliament is set to elect the country’s president today (8 February) in a contest which pits euro-sceptic incumbent Václav Klaus against pro-EU challenger Jan Švejnar. The election is largely seen as a choice between ‘old’ and ‘new’ visions of the country’s future. With additional reporting from EURACTIV in Prague.

Today’s election pits 66-year-old incumbent Václav Klaus – the Civic Democrat (ODS) candidate who is seeking a second term – against Social Democrat (CSSD) nominee and US citizen Jan Švejnar. Pre-election polls had indicated that parliamentarians would narrowly opt to re-elect Mr. Klaus, although going into today’s vote, the likely outcome remained far from clear. 

The candidates differ widely in their attitudes towards the European Union. Euro-sceptic Klaus sees the EU as a primarily economic system of co-operation between sovereign nations, and frequently opposes giving up competencies to “centralised” Brussels. 

Moreover, he was a vociferous opponent of the EU’s doomed constitutional treaty and is likewise against the Treaty of Lisbon. Klaus is opposed to the Czech Republic joining the European single currency and is sceptical about EU policies on climate change. 

Meanwhile, making the case for increased Czech engagement in European affairs, pro-EU Švejnar – a 55-year-old University of Michigan professor whose American wife does not speak Czech – declared “the best strategy for a medium-sized country […] is to defend her interests as part of a greater whole.” He believes that “putting forward our national interests and pro-European position are not in contradiction but go together, hand-in-hand”. 

Švejnar wants the Czech Republic to move quickly to join the euro currency. Moreover, he calls for increased efforts to combat climate change, but Klaus disputes the notion that human activity is causing global warming – a phenomenon which he believes has not been sufficiently proved – and fears that efforts to curb it could harm national economies. 

Both candidates support US plans to install part of their missile defence shield in the country, representing one of the few policy areas over which their opinions concur. 

Švejnar has indicated that he will renounce his US citizenship in favour of Czech nationality if he emerges victorious in today’s vote. 

Expressing his desire for a greater rapprochement with the EU, the left's candidate Jan Švejnar said he wants the Czech Republic to "play a more active role in the EU", stressing the need to "build the EU together in a constructive way and strengthen its competitiveness". 

Referring to the upcoming Czech EU presidency in the first half of 2009, Švejnar stressed the importance of electing a "constructive" president who would "try to help the Czech Republic to succeed" rather than a "Europhobe" who would harm the country's international reputation. 

A Švejnar victory would "weaken the government" as it controls just half of the 200-seat lower chamber in parliament, political analyst Bohumil Dolezal told the International Herald Tribune. 

Prior to the election, the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) questioned the secret ballot system in a dispute which led to last-minute doubts as to whether the election would go ahead at all. The CSSD call for an open vote "to avoid political trades" in a move supported by ruling coalition members the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Greens

The Civic Democrats (ODS), who have a majority in the upper chamber, are the only members of the ruling coalition to continue to support a secret ballot, arguing that it is the only way of safeguarding the "dignified conduct of the election". 

The president of the Czech Republic is elected to serve a five-year term by the country's bicameral parliament, usually – with the exception of 1990 - by secret ballot. As a result, the election is characterised by behind-the-scenes bargaining and political horse-trading between MPs from the various parties. 

The post is largely seen as a ceremonial one - it is the prime minister who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the country – though the president is seen as a unifying figure and the guarantor of the political system. The president has the power to veto laws by sending them back to parliament. He also appoints the prime minister, charging him with the task of forming a government, and appoints the central bankers and judges. 

The post has been held by Václav Klaus, the choice of the right-leaning government made up of the majority Civic Democrats (ODS) and its coalition partners the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Greens, since 2003. 

  • 8 Feb. 2008: Czech parliament set to elect president. 
  • Jan.-June 2009: Czech presidency of the EU. 

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