The president of the Czech Republic occupies a largely ceremonial position, with little real power. The country’s recent presidential election, however, was a hotly contested and closely watched contest, in part because it was the first time that the office was filled through a direct election. Also of significance was the issue of historical memory, focusing on Czech relations with Germany and ethnic Germans during and immediately after World War II. The victorious candidate, Miloš Zeman, of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party, cast nationalistic aspersions against his opponent Karel Schwarzenberg, noting that Schwarzenberg’s Austrian wife does not speak Czech, and insinuating that his family had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Schwarzenberg’s aristocratic German background—he is deemed both prince and duke, and is styled “His Serene Highness”—helped sustain such accusations. Significantly, the row began when Schwarzenberg declared that the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war would be considered a war crime by today’s standards. Such a statement did not go over well among Czech nationalists, although it would probably be supported by most experts in the field.
In the end, Zeman won the election handily, taking almost 55 percent of the vote. The geographical patterns of the election, however, were rather curious, at least if seen from the perspective of Western Europe or of the United States. The more economically conservative candidate, Schwarzenberg, did very well in the more cosmopolitan cities, particularly Prague, whereas the socialist candidate, Zeman, triumphed not just in the industrial city of Ostrava, but also in smaller towns and in the more rural parts of the country. Such a pattern is understandable, however, if one looks at the two candidate’s social and cultural positions. Zeman may be a member of a vaguely socialist party, but he takes populist positions on a number of issues that would be regarded by many as highly conservative. He doubts, for example, that human activities could cause global warming, and he has referred to Islam as the “the enemy … anti-civilization.” The free-market TOP 09 party of Schwarzenberg, in contrast, has adopted a pro-EU position, and is relatively liberal on social and environmental issues. For these reasons, its ideology is sometimes described as one of “liberal conservatism.”
The first round of voting in the Czech presidential election, which featured nine candidates, revealed some interesting patterns as well. Particularly intriguing was the candidacy of Vladimír Franz, who came in fifth place, with 351,916 votes. Franz, a professor of dramatic arts and a noted composer and painter, was favored by many student groups. A colorful figure, Franz is noted not only for his avant-garde art, but also for his tattoos, which essentially cover his face. Oddly, Franz did particularly well in many rural areas of the country, particularly in the southwest, while he performed relatively poorly in key urban areas such as Prague.