Macau Daily Times
Czech presidential candidate launches US-style campaign
Friday, 18 January 2008
by Jan Marchal*
A lightning country-wide tour punctuated by interviews, university conferences and city centre walkabouts, pressing the flesh and signing autographs -- Jan Svejnar's campaign for the Czech presidency has all the hallmarks of the United States where he has spent most of his life."Of course it's American. Kennedy or Clinton did that, but I find it natural for someone in my situation," admitted the 55-year-old Czech-American economist, who is hoping to conquer the homeland he quit almost 40 years ago.The sole challenger to President Vaclav Klaus, who is standing for a further five-year mandate in elections starting February 8, Svejnar was 17 when left the then Communist Czechoslovakia for the United States.A graduate of Cornell and Princeton universities, with 12 years as a professor at the University of Michigan, Svejnar has passed most of his life in the United States, holds joint citizenship and speaks Czech with a slight American accent.He said the meet the people campaign "is a plus for everyone: the public can get to know the candidate and he can familiarise himself with people's opinions.""During my visits, I have also met lawmakers who live in the regions in question," Svejnar added.Unlike in the United States, the Czech president is chosen by the lower and upper houses of parliament. The first round of voting takes place on February 8, with a candidate requiring an absolute majority to win.Svejnar entered the race in December, backed by several groups of upper house senators including the biggest opposition party, the Social Democrats, and Green party members angered by Klaus' negationist stance on global warming.But his free market credentials have frightened the isolated, but still consequential, Communist party.Klaus goes into the contest as favourite -- he is backed by the main government party, the right-wing Civic Democrats that he founded and which have the most lawmakers in both houses.Since the overthrow of communism, Svejnar has frequently returned to his homeland, where he was appointed economic adviser to president Vaclav Havel, the former dissident who masterminded the so-called "Velvet Revolution."The pro-European backs a fast adoption of the euro, marking him out from the eurosceptic Klaus.But Svejnar was for a long time almost unknown in his homeland, unlike Klaus, who is an inescapable feature of the post-communist political landscape as finance minister, prime minister, lower house speaker and finally, since 2003, president."I am well aware of being at a disadvantage from the start because I am the challenger. But I believe I can benefit from a rising reputation and growing support," Svejnar said during a stop in the country's second city, Brno.The "Brnak" locals received him with polite applause, sufficient nonetheless to drown out an isolated cry of "Yankee go home." In the evening, a public debate was concluded with a standing ovation.His packed programme included a visit to the town hall, meetings with a series of lawmakers and journalists, a walkabout in the city centre, an interview with the local radio and a public debate at the technical university.During the debate, Svejnar fielded a series of questions, predominantly about economic and social issues."Jan Svejnar convinced me. The current president belongs to a generation of politicians who should quit," commented philosophy student Petr Tomas on leaving the hall.Despite such support, Svejnar's campaign has suffered from the outset from a serious cultural handicap.He was stumped on a question about the motto on the presidential flag and his American wife stumbled over the identity of a popular local singer.But recent polls suggest his popularity has risen from 15 percent in November to more than 45 percent this month.Klaus, 66, appears unperturbed by the surge in support for his rival. After a long hesitation, he has finally accepted the challenge of a television debate with Svejnar -- although he still eschews a campaign tour."During my first mandate I visited each of the 14 regions at least twice. In this country, I know all the roads, all the bends. I have 18 years of work behind me," he said.