16 April 2003, Volume 5, Number 8
THE MAKING OF A CZECH PRESIDENT
By Jan Urban
After his rather spectacular electoral defeat in the June 2002 elections for the Chamber of Deputies, then-Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Vaclav Klaus seemed to be nearing his political death. Alongside former President Vaclav Havel, he was the longest-serving top Czech politician in the postcommunist Czech Republic. His party's loss in those parliamentary elections was generally perceived as a clear signal from voters that Klaus should leave the political scene and make room for a new generation. At that particular moment, everything seemed to be working against him. The legacy of Klaus's four-year "opposition agreement" with the ruling Social Democratic Party's (CSSD) minority government was largely perceived as one of shady backstage politicking and corruption and was sanctioned as such by the centrist vote. His personal popularity was sliding as well. His CSSD partner in this deal, former Prime Minister Milos Zeman (1998-2002), had announced his departure from politics several months before the parliamentary elections, thus leaving Klaus alone, as it were, to bear responsibility for the outcome of an apparent growing resentment against the concept and results of the "opposition agreement."
Even within the ranks of his own ODS, voices were getting louder, challenging Klaus's "Supremo" image -- by now proven ineffective at the ballot box -- and pointing out that his "one-man show" electoral campaign was the main reason for the party's bitter electoral defeat. Few noted how he had turned his first-ever electoral defeat into a power-sharing success in 1998; at the time, Klaus had insisted on what he described as the necessity to secure the "stability" of the political system, allegedly calling for a pragmatic choice in favor of "the lesser evil" of a partnership with the CSSD. In fact, the agreement sealed between Zeman's CSSD and the ODS allowed Klaus and his party to enjoy the best of both possible worlds in a parliamentary system. The innovative "sui generis" concept of the "opposition agreement" on the one hand ensured the ODS of substantial influence on executive planning and decision-making (and of influential positions in political or politically linked economic structures) while, on the other hand, posing as an opposition party and benefiting from the freedom to use a right-wing, populist political discourse when addressing the electorate.
Not that the blame for the outcome of the "opposition agreement" should be laid at the doorstep of the ODS alone. Both partners to the agreement and their leaderships used it to create a powerful, clientelist political system that allowed for control over economic structures as well as media outlets. Furthermore, they tried to perpetuate this hold on power by pushing through both chambers of parliament constitutional amendments which, if passed, would have placed smaller political parties at a gross disadvantage and, in effect, would have created a two-party electoral system in all but name. It was only President Havel's appeals to the Constitutional Court that thwarted the attempt -- in several instances and at the last minute -- thus reconfirming for both the CSSD and the ODS their perception of Havel as their greatest political enemy (see Urban, 2003).
The ingenious system appeared to have come crashing down as a result of the June 2002 elections. Following Zeman's promised departure from politics (he would make an unsuccessful attempt to run for the presidency vacated by Havel only six months later), the ballot was won by Vladimir Spidla, who had stepped into Zeman's shoes as CSSD chairman and who subsequently became premier. Spidla's defeat of Klaus was in no little measure due to his criticism of the corruption ushered in by the "opposition agreement." Klaus seemed to have become a lonely political figure. With the exception of a shrinking circle of spin doctors (see below) and a remarkably stable pool of emotional supporters trusting and forgiving everything that Klaus did or said, no one believed he still had a political future.
In the weeks following his electoral defeat, Klaus marched through a proverbial "valley of death." Moreover, his carefully cultivated image as a conservative, always defending conservative family principles, was battered by tabloid revelations of an alleged extramarital affair with "a blonde in her early 20s," ("Blesk," 27 August and 14 December 2002) and by further allegations in the media that the affair had precedents. Klaus seemed shattered, unable to concentrate; and for the first time in his long political career, he gave the impression of an old and tired man. His instincts perhaps told him to try and stay as close as possible to the center of power, but he simply did not seem to have the slightest chance for a comeback. Klaus even tried to propose a renewal of the "opposition agreement" to Spidla, betting on the difficulties the new premier faced in forming and keeping in place a one-vote-majority coalition government in case the CSSD turned (as, indeed it would) to the two small, right-of-center parties: the Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) and the Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU). But Klaus was rebuffed ("Mlada fronta Dnes," 21 June 2002). At this particular point in time, Klaus himself appeared to have resigned himself to the idea that he might never reach the position of head of state, which Havel was to vacate within six months, even if the ODS nominated him to run for the post. "In the event that the Social Democrats form a governing coalition with the KDU-CSL and the US-DEU," he told the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" on 21 June, it would be pointless for the ODS to run its own presidential candidate -- indeed, he said, such an attempt would amount to inviting "outright discredit." In "a situation in which all the cards have been dealt long ahead, and in a system of indirect presidential elections, I myself would acknowledge that it is out of place to run for the position," Klaus said. Many interpreted this as his farewell to politics.
A mere 6 1/2 months later, Vaclav Klaus was elected president of the Czech Republic. Defeat was turned into personal victory in a manner unprecedented in the albeit brief history of postcommunist Czech politics. The many Klaus opponents watched in disbelief; yet, as his chances were obviously growing, they were incapable of countering his well-orchestrated campaign.
The Political Backdrop
In searching for explanations, one needs to note four distinct aspects of Vaclav Klaus's political personality and style.
First, Klaus has forged a potent and powerful group of advisers, or spin doctors, who were recruited from outside the ranks of his own ODS. The group might best be described as a sort of "private praetorian guard," including such disparate individuals as a rock musician, a failed magazine publisher, and a former diplomat. United in their fanatic personal loyalty to Klaus and a belief in the power of media contacts and manipulation, the group is endowed with remarkable analytical skills and campaign savvy. Its members were brought together in 1998 to help repel a rebellion within the ODS leadership, whose promoters were accusing Klaus of covering up shady party financing practices. For a few critical days, Klaus was no longer able to rely on his party colleagues. The hastily convened group of extraparty loyalists organized an effective lobbying campaign among regional party organizations outside of Prague, as well as several successful public-relations stunts. In the end, the rebellion was crushed at a special ODS party congress and the rebels forced to leave and form a new party -- the US-DEU. Moreover, the financial scandal was never properly investigated nor explained.
After this initial success, the advisory group stayed together in an attempt to form an intellectual and even social counterweight to the loose circle of people invited from time to time by President Havel for informal consultations. But unlike Havel, who in the last years of his presidency isolated himself from both parliament and society, the "Klausians" aimed at building an effective, everyday, media- and political-lobbying machine around Klaus for future use. Wielding Klaus's undisputed position atop the ODS party, this unelected group of outsiders effectively took control over party fund-raising and its media presentation.
Second, Klaus lives and breathes politics. Everything in politics is seemingly personal for him. This is both a great disadvantage and an advantage, allowing him at times to make deals or cooperate with even his greatest ideological enemies but never to forgive or forget personal criticism from within his own party ranks. As a result, no other Czech political party has been suffered such a turbulent inability to mend differences as the ODS, forcing two groups of influential ODS politicians to leave the party in protest in 1998 and, again, in 2002.
Third, Klaus is a professional politician driven by his aspiration for power. Despite his oft-declared "right-wing liberalism," he has never been constrained by, and never applied in practice, any ideological boundaries. The end seemingly justifies the means. Everything is possible and acceptable as long as it advances his pursuit of political game. Thus he never protested when, back in early 2002, some of his closest aides dispatched short text messages by mobile phone to politicians and the media with false information about the financial debt of one of the formations that made up the Four-Party Coalition; at the time, the Four-Party Coalition was comfortably leading all opinion polls and was expected to win a landslide with its fierce critique of Klaus, Zeman, and their "opposition agreement." As a result of this campaign and the political bickering that followed, the Four-Party Coalition broke up and its dream of an election victory collapsed.
Fourth, Klaus and his spin doctors correctly diagnosed that he and his political style became outdated and were defeated due to the existence of a rather specific, secluded political space often referred to as the "democratic portion of the political scene." This political space excluded cooperation with the unreformed and unrepentant Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM). The tradition that emerged after the 1989 Velvet Revolution was based on a tacit agreement of all noncommunist political parties to ostracize the KSCM as an undemocratic and extremist formation. All democratic political parties have repeatedly and publicly stated that they exclude any political cooperation with KSCM, aside from day-to-day parliamentary business. In his personal pursuit of the presidency, Klaus became the first Czech politician to break this pledge in order to secure votes from the KSCM.
The combination of these four aspects offers an explanation of the political resurrection and presidential victory of Vaclav Klaus. But before that came the disastrous general-election campaign. Run by his team of spin doctors, the campaign was focused on Klaus as a leading figure and, at times, made use of strident nationalist rhetoric. The voters turned their backs on ODS and its leader. The combined left-wing parties, the CSSD and the KSCM, garnered a comfortable potential majority of 111 seats in the 200-member lower house -- had they been willing and able to agree on forming a coalition (see Pehe, 2002). But for the reasons mentioned above, a coalition with the KSCM was not an option for Spidla. In an attempt to demonstrate that his back was turned to the discrediting legacy of the "opposition agreement," the new premier opted for the riskiest of all the risky options, forming a three-party coalition on the strength of a one-vote majority in the Chamber of Deputies. Spidla's option unwittingly forged Klaus's comeback chance.
By forming his "anti-Klaus coalition," Spidla alienated an influential segment within his own CSSD. This group was opposed to cooperation with the smaller rightist parties, claiming that this amounted to a betrayal of left-wing principles. Not surprisingly, that CSSD segment was the same one that benefited in the past from the "opposition agreement" with the more right-wing ODS. But under the new post-2002 electoral circumstances, its partisans preferred either to continue the stabilized environment or -- principles aside -- shift toward a comfortable majority provided by collaboration with the Communists. Spidla sought to appease the most influential individuals from this group, who were closely connected to the former -- but still influential -- CSSD chairman and premier Milos Zeman by giving them ministerial positions in his cabinet. But he had clearly lost their loyalty. In the end, Trade Minister Jiri Rusnok rebelled and even openly admitted to having voted against CSSD presidential candidate Jan Sokol in the last of the three votes that it took to elect a president, and to having cast his vote for Klaus. He was sacked (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003), but the mystery of more than 10 Social Democrats voting for Klaus remains.
Klaus and his team of spin doctors needed some time to realize that the 2002 ODS electoral defeat and the formation of a slim-majority government coalition was actually giving them the chance of their lives. They were forced to realize that their strategy for the electoral campaign had been disastrous and that, within the ODS itself, the feeling was growing that they were outsiders who had "stolen away" the party's chairman. After some bitter soul searching and mutual recriminations within the ODS, it was agreed that Klaus would step down as chairman at the next ODS congress, in December 2002. In exchange, ODS would submit his candidacy for president. What seemed the least painful of a range of painful compromises soon turned into a surprising success for all involved. From then on, Klaus and his team were liberated from all party politics and program restrictions. They were set free to use whatever means or gimmicks that were needed to achieve the ultimate goal of getting Klaus into Prague Castle -- the official presidential seat. The new ODS party leadership, and particularly its new chairman, Miroslav Topolanek (not the best choice, according to Klaus), could on the other hand look forward to a party life after Klaus; but at the same time they could continue to cash in on Klaus's personal popularity. The ODS would never look for another candidate and would not protest any tactic chosen by Klaus. This was the safest bet.
But the 58 ODS votes in the lower chamber were not enough. Cold, cynical arithmetic called for securing the backing of the 41 KSCM votes -- always disciplined and voting en masse. This required that Klaus break the taboo against cooperating with the Communists and thus allow them to leave their political ghetto. It proved an easy task. Neither Klaus nor the Communists bothered to recall his frequent tirades against the political left or the 1998 election campaign's "mobilization" posters aimed at creating a communist scare lest anyone dare to look to either the KSCM or the CSSD. At this new juncture, both sides shared the same strategic interest: defeating Spidla's vision of combating corruption and promoting a welfare state. They both wanted to fragment the CSSD so the Communists might become the strongest party on the left side of the political spectrum. With centrist voters in the Czech Republic adamantly anticommunist, this would ensure the ODS a position of the "only available alternative."
The unseemly marriage of convenience was successful. With 99 votes assured, Klaus and his spin doctors now needed only to revive some close personal contacts within the CSSD, stemming back to the days of the "opposition agreement," and wait for Spidla's mistakes. And these were plentiful, most notably when the premier was forced into confronting a rebellion within his CSSD parliamentary group that was personally directed by Zeman, who actively sabotaged the selection of a joint coalition candidate for the presidency. At one stage, Zeman himself stepped in as a candidate, creating utter chaos within the governing coalition. It took no less than three series of votes and nine ballots, but Klaus in the end inherited the presidential mantle of his formidable adversary, Vaclav Havel, becoming the country's second postcommunist president.
A Populist President Who Wants -- And Needs -- To Be Popular
In his several speeches and interviews as a presidential candidate, Klaus made numerous promises, collected immediately in the form of a book that was published by his team the day after his election to office. Among other things, he promised to be the president of ordinary Czechs, not to mingle with party politics, to stand firm in the face of Sudeten Germans, and to cooperate with parliament and with the government. Within two weeks of taking office, he had broken nearly all of his promises aside from one -- that of being "the people's president." He displayed a remarkable will and desire to be seen and welcomed by people in the streets. Even his "unplanned and improvised" hours of weekend skiing with his family in the mountains in Spindleruv Mlyn, proved to be well-orchestrated public-relations stunts with television crews invited in advance and his aides handing out presidential photos to the crowd. This professional attention to his personal public image is expected to become a hallmark of Klaus's presidency. The president's role in the Czech constitutional system is relatively weak. Nonetheless, as demonstrated on several occasions by Vaclav Havel, a determined and popular president can exert influence and take initiative that forces the rest of the political system to follow in his footsteps. Klaus has learned from Havel's mistakes. Having forged a team of professionals versatile in lobbying political parties and in media campaigns, there is every reason to expect that he will not forego this advantage after his election to the presidency. On the contrary, one might well expect that, as time goes by, the role of this team will become increasingly important.
Klaus's main interest is the domestic political scene, and his political agenda is likely to remain unchanged: to work cautiously toward the creation of a two-party political system. In this he will have to turn -- using the support of both the ODS and the KSCM -- against the Spidla cabinet or, at least, prevent Spidla's reformist wing within the CSSD from winning over the party and ridding it of the partisans of Zeman's corrupt legacy. One might expect most of his domestic political actions to take place in behind-the-scene elbow-twisting and ad hoc coalition building. But one might also expect Klaus to miss no chance to mete revenge on his personal enemies, namely Spidla and the US-DEU. In his first days, he established a precedent when he publicly questioned the mastery of foreign languages of the new industry and trade minister, Milan Urban, who replaced Klaus's reputed favorite, Jiri Rusnok. Combined with Rusnok's utterly false claim that he was the only cabinet member who speaks English, Klaus's attack succeeded in portraying Spidla as a "perhaps nice, but not overly competent" prime minister. In reality, Rusnok's English is far from perfect, and other cabinet members include former American Studies Professor and Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares, who studied and lectured in the United States.
Klaus has precious little experience in foreign-policy issues. So far, he has relied wholly on an ideological perception of international affairs and on trying to stand in opposition to Havel. This has led him into some spectacular and painful blunders -- although none of them too damaging abroad, where his stature was never comparable to Havel's -- while boosting his domestic popularity and his quest to cultivate the image at home of standing up to Havel's attempts to involve the country in actions that were alleged to have contradicted Czech interests. In August 1991, for example, Klaus, apparently unaware that the attempt had been quashed hours earlier, was still warning against hastily condemning the attempted coup in the Soviet Union. Throughout the war in Bosnia, Klaus took an anti-interventionist position on grounds such as "bombing seems immoral" and "all sides are [equally] guilty." In 1996, just five foreign politicians of presidential or premiership status visited Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade; Yugoslavia was still under international sanctions; the visits by the presidents of three neighboring states might be explained by the fact that one cannot choose one's geographic neighbors; the remaining two were Zimbabwe's infamous dictator, Robert Mugabe, and Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. On his departure, Klaus described Milosevic as "pleasant, and clearly informed, as one would expect from a former banker" ("Respekt," 11 March 1996). In January 1999, two days after the Racak massacre, Klaus, acting as the speaker in the Czech Chamber of Deputies, visited the Yugoslav Embassy in Prague to promote his book, recently published in Belgrade. He took the same non-interventionist attitude toward the current conflict in Iraq.
Klaus arguably prefers the status quo to any reform unless he is able to control that reform. On the other hand, he will never fight reality once he perceives it as such, and is ready to accept even concepts alien to himself, such as that of EU integration, provided such acceptance leaves him in power. Ironically, his election as president provided a strong boost to the "yes" camp ahead of the referendum on Czech accession to the EU, since the "no" camp thus lost its primary symbol and voice of "Euro-skepticism." Klaus will always avoid risks, moral stands, and grand gestures. In his new position, he will not advance foreign-policy initiatives but will be consulting behind the scenes on every move and will clearly portray any hint of a Czech foreign-policy success as his own.
Expectations: The Status Quo Hero
Klaus hates making mistakes. He is in a perfect position now to influence the entire political spectrum and even the constitutional system. He has at least five (he believes 10) years ahead of him in the president's office. He will not hurry. He will slowly name loyal Supreme and Constitutional court judges, as well as ambassadors and army generals, who are loyal to him. His team will work on the creation of a parliamentary majority to support a constitutional shift toward a two-party system. As long as he can still make use of them, he will maintain -- and even lend assistance to -- relations from the past, especially those in control of the effective commercial-television monopoly in the Czech Republic. He will be a mere "representative statesman" on visits abroad but will work hard on his popularity at home. In an EU member country with no dramatic risks involved and all important rules and decisions pre-framed within the EU and NATO context, Klaus might indeed have at least one comfortable term in office. He might well fail in any real crisis, as he has demonstrated in the past. But with the EU and NATO around, no serious crisis is likely to emerge in the next few years -- barring the most unpredictable scenarios. Klaus is the perfect solution for "business as usual" and for a slow, manipulated reform. He will, most probably, be a respected and popular president. The status quo hero.
Jan Urban, a communist-era dissident in Czechoslovakia, is a journalist working for the Czech Radio 6 public broadcaster in Prague.
"Blesk" (Prague), 2002.
"Mlada fronta Dnes" (Prague), 2002.
Pehe, J., 2002, "Czech Elections: Victory for a New Generation" in "RFE/RL's East European Perspectives," Vol. 4, no. 17, 21 August.
"Respekt" (Prague), 1996.
"RFE/RL Newsline," 2003.
Urban, J., 2003, "President Vaclav Havel's Legacy: Moral Success, Political Failure," in "RFE/RL's East European Perspectives," Vol. 5, No. 6, 20 March.