Czech presidential vote reflects post-communist divide

5th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

The election shows that the Eastern Europe country has come a long way but not far enough.

Prague -- The Czech Republic joined the European Union almost four years ago and its citizens can travel freely within the passport-free Schengen area since late December.

But the country's upcoming presidential election still reflects a divide that dates back to the early post-communist years, which is personified by the arch-foes of that era -- former and current presidents Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus.

Incumbent president and economist Vaclav Klaus, 66, represents the conservative, pragmatic yet somewhat provincial Czech patriots, while his challenger, Czech-US economist Jan Svejnar, 55, appeals to the idealist, cosmopolitan if somewhat elitist Havel-style liberals.

"We all know from the start that Mr Svejnar is Vaclav Havel's candidate," Klaus recently poked at his rival, a former Havel adviser.

Not surprisingly, Klaus' supporters in the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which he once co-founded and chaired, were among those who attacked Svejnar for being an outsider, whose US wife does not even speak Czech.

"I can't imagine that the Czech Republic would be led by someone, who arrives here as if on a safari," ODS Interior Minister Ivan Langer told Tyden weekly. "For me, Vaclav Klaus is the Czech Republic and Jan Svejnar (is) a hunter, who arrives here to fire away and have fun."

After communism fell in 1989, Svejnar has split time, if unevenly, between teaching economics at US universities and running an academic institute in Prague.

Still many on the right and left have attacked him for being an emigrant, which has been a liability in the post-communist Czech Republic.

"Those, who left and did not live through everything here with us, don't have the right to participate. It is small-town thinking," political analyst Jiri Pehe told DPA.

Havel has defended a surprised Svejnar, who ended up promising to give up his US citizenship if he was elected.

"I thought we are almost 20 years after the (1989 Velvet) revolution ... so I expected that actually there would be something attractive about a person who has roots here, lived here, then gathered education and experience abroad," the underdog candidate told DPA.

As a teenager in 1970, Svejnar emigrated from the then Czechoslovakia. He and his younger sister boarded a train to Geneva to join their parents, as their father was representing Prague at the International Labour Organization there.

The young man then settled in the United States, where he is now an economics professor at the University of Michigan.

Since his campaign kicked off in the fall, Svejnar has been the first to openly say what Havel has so far only hinted at.

In desperate need of the communist vote, this communist-era exile spoke out against the hypocrisy, with which politicians have treated the outcasts of the Czech democratic politics -- the Communists.

"Virtually everybody is doing deals with them and sometimes behind closed doors, because there is this unease (about) what this party is," Svejnar said.

The Czech Communists have not shed their name and still have some dogmatic Stalinists in their ranks, but shutting them out has caused the country to have too many weak governments.

"What he sees is a quickly ageing band of seniors ... who do not represent a threat," Pehe said.

Svejnar however said that he would not break the taboo and bring the Communists back to the government.

"I think that we are not in that situation yet," he said. "They are not interested in joining the government and I think they have not carried out the transformation yet."

Unlike eurosceptic Klaus and like pro-European Havel, Svejnar supports a strong civil society, measures to curb global warming and the speedy adoption of the euro.

Still he prefers not to be seen as a Havel man. "He clearly was a terrific moral leader," Svejnar said, adding moments later. "But obviously we are not identical twins."

DPA with Expatica

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