The Presidency of Václav Klaus

As Miloš Zeman takes over as president of the ČR, we look back at ten years under Klaus

Ryan Scott

Written by Ryan Scott Published on 11.02.2013 14:16:27 (updated on 11.02.2013) Reading time: 6 minutes

There’s a joke about Václav Klaus that goes like this:
Q. What’s the difference between Klaus and God?
A. God doesn’t think he’s Václav Klaus.

Something tells me Václav Klaus wouldn’t see the funny side. Not because he wouldn’t get the joke was about his arrogance, rather I don’t think he sees a problem with this style. And if opinion polls are anything to go by, not many Czechs do either.

Klaus’ presidency almost perfectly matches up with my time in the Czech Republic. Yet it took me a little time to shake the idea that Havel was not in the castle. The late ex-president’s reputation had loomed so large internationally that his rather po-faced successor, whose portrait hung in government buildings and schools, didn’t quite compete with the image of a dissident playwright who’d spent time in prison.

After a while I saw my view was somewhat naïve. The presidency of Havel was not without its faults. I also discovered that my view of Klaus was in the minority. Surveys have shown that over the years Klaus has commanded considerable confidence among the Czech population. An article from earlier this year, however, shows that the president’s approval ratings had fallen from 68% in April 2011 to under fifty percent at the same time in 2012. He still remains more highly regarded than the government or either house of parliament.

It would be easy to suggest that Klaus’ popularity is a reflection of his politics. However, anti-Europe feeling is on the rise here while Klaus’ rating is going down. Moreover, in 2003 when his approval sat around 60%, the 77% of Czechs who took part to in the referendum for EU membership, voted to join the EU. Admittedly, neither the survey nor the election reflect the views of everybody, but when the most overtly Eurosceptic political leader in the European Union has a high approval rating in a country which just joined Europe, it suggests that his stance on Europe isn’t the reason, or isn’t the only reason, for  his approval.

So is it his equally well-known views on the human impact on global warming? Eighty percent of respondents to a survey by STEM showed a belief in climate change (47% said somewhat yes, 33% gave a definite yes.) Only 6% shared a view similar to the president’s that it wasn’t happening. So either the people polled about this issue are completely different to those polled about their feelings about Klaus or his views on the environment are not an explanation either.

He does seem to command a certain amount of respect even among people who disagree with him. I’ve spoken with people who’ve met him and who had issues with his style or politics but still regarded him as an intelligent man or someone who comes across as a leader. Given the instability in the Czech government – there have been five prime ministers plus a caretaker government during Klaus’ presidency – perhaps his appeal lies in him remaining a political constant.

If that’s the case, it must be a certain amount of respect which comes with the office, because not only do his high approval ratings diverge from the views of a significant number section of the population, he achieves these figures despite noticeable inconsistencies of both policy and character. In terms of policy, he decries the EU as being as undemocratic as the Soviet Union, yet is a supporter of Russia’s less-than-democratic leader Putin. Or, he professes to be a small government conservative while being renowned for his authoritarian style. At a personal level, questions  remain about his connection to Lukoil, the nature of his election (It is likely Klaus won the presidential election with support from communist MPs), and  the perceived corruption  of the voucher privatization system during his time as prime minister. None of this seemed to affect his public support.

Yet, he is unpopular in some quarters. One website called Nemluví za mě (He doesn’t speak for me) has a list of Klaus’ more embarrassing quotes. Czech artist David Černý also saw inspiration in Klaus’ opinions and used them in his sculpture Entropa. The artwork, which was a giant model kit of the EU member states, with the UK as the missing bit, featured a Czech ‘piece’ displaying quotes by the Czech president.

Last year was the clearest sign of disapproval toward the president, when Pavel Vondrouš fired an air soft gun at Klaus. He claimed that the act was against the system, not the president. The event was contained and thankfully didn’t result in the country’s first political assassination. Ultimately, the perpetrator is too unhinged to see this as anything more than an isolated incident.

However, Klaus has chosen to orchestrate his own bang – at least, figuratively speaking.  This year Klaus has granted amnesty to around 6,300 convicts. His explanation, which came five days after the announcement, was justified on the grounds of giving those pardoned a chance “at a normal life”. Since then he has refused to explain himself further.

The amnesty has provoked anger and skepticism. It will probably halt some high profile cases, including the case against Tomáš Pitr, who is wanted for tax evasion. Pitr’s business success has been attributed to alleged connections in the government. As a final gesture, the amnesty will certainly mar Klaus’ image even further.
Outside of the Czech Republic, the president has his share of supporters and detractors. Klaus drew the ire of many at home and abroad because of his views on Prague’s first Pride March and his defense of spokesman Petr Hájek’s use of the word ‘deviant ’to describe the LGBT community. His supporters abroad include Margaret Thatcher and Lord Christopher Mockton,  the latter who shares Klaus’ views on global warming. These views have seen him invited to speak by groups such as the Heartland Institute in the US or the Institute for Public Affair in Australia, two right wing think tanks.

His opinions were not limited to political matters. On his travels, Klaus penned a number of articles in which he shared his views on different places. New York had a ‘magical beauty and energy’, though he said there were ‘permanent demonstrations of various groups (and minorities)’.  Sydney he described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Perth, however, he said at first glance has no soul.

The tone of Klaus’ columns veers from didactic (you feel like he’s giving you a lesson about the city) to the more expected opinions on political situations and views of other political figures. If you can be bothered plowing through them, they do offer a candid view, though one fixed firmly within Klaus’ mindset. Not everyone thinks his travelogues are worth reading, though. Reflex magazine accused the president of punishing people with his writing.

And apart from these experiences, the president is known for picking up the odd pen.

I can’t help but think that for all his speeches and writings that Klaus would be a little disappointed that this was the deed which brought him so much attention. Though the amnesty will almost certainly remedy that.
Even though he’s stepping down in March, I doubt he will disappear from the public arena. Whether in office or not, Klaus will remain a political figure – and probably no less divisive.

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