I chose a dramatic time to go home. After five years in Quebec and an adolescence in the States, I have been back in the place I was born — Prague, Czech Republic — for less than 48 hours. In another 48 hours, the country will be hosting its first democratic direct presidential election since the fall of communism. (Not to worry: We have had democratically elected presidents before, but they were elected by Parliament.) For the first time in history, voters will directly cast ballots for the person they want to lead their country.
Furthermore, my grandmother, a woman of strong opinions, has found out that the final presidential debate is to be streamed live tonight, and open to members of the general public. I am horribly jetlagged and have eaten nothing but biscuits for the past bit, but this is all very exciting, so we decide to exercise our privilege as members of the general public and go.
It would be difficult to explain Czech politics to outsiders, and frankly impossible to explain how Czechs feel about Czech politics to outsiders. Though most English-speaking people I talk to these days can find Czech Republic on a map, most associations are with beer and hockey. Foreigners do not care about Czech politics, nor do they have any reason to.
In light of this, perhaps a good starting point is the States. Much of the world at large knows at least the rough outline of American presidential elections — there’s red, there’s blue, there are economic issues and environmental issues and moral issues, weird things happen, both sides will be mad at someone at some point.
Compared to that model, this election is an entirely different barrel of fish. To overextend the metaphor, this particular barrel is teeming with all sorts of exotic aquatic life, some of it probably with tentacles and all sorts of things. To start, in this election, there are nine candidates for president in total — three women and six men.
Though both have a strong voter base, the frontrunners, Fischer and Zeman, are often studied by the media — Fischer in part because he joined the Czechoslovak communist party in the eighties (a move largely seen as a disavowal of morals for personal gain), and Zeman because of various allegations of corruption and the opaque nature of his campaign funding. There is Dientsbier, a strong orator with an even stronger hatred of Zeman.
There is the stately Roithová, doctor and member of the European Parliament. There is the kindly, birdlike ex-actress Fischerová, whose campaign runs without major funding and uses no billboards. There is the charismatic and well-liked duke Schwartzenberg. There is Sobotka, an affable old man who represents the conservatives, and Bobošíková, a lipsticked ex-tv reporter.
The candidate easily most covered by foreign media is Czech artist, professor, and musician Vladimír Franz, whose entire body is covered in dark tattoos. From my vantage point, his face is a gorgeous indigo blue. He had to leave the last debate early so as not to miss the dress rehearsal of his new acclaimed opera: The War With the Newts (based on the eponymous novel by the Czech author Karel Čapek, who among other things invented the word robot). Though many initially saw his candidacy more as an artistic statement, his bold statements and accomplished artistic history have earned him a non-negligible following. Never a dull moment over here.
My grandmother is wearing a pin supporting the candidate of her choice: A famous 75-year old duke named Karel Schwartzenberg, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose main campaign platform seems to be that he is, on the whole, a decent, intelligent chap with no personal allegations of corruption.
(In post-communist Czech Republic, not being openly corrupt is a rather strong selling point; many former powerful politicians and businessmen have been found guilty of embezzlement of sizeable amounts of money. The political atmosphere in this regard is anyway rather tense at the moment: The departing president has just granted an amnesty which may ensure that some of the more famous corruption goes unprosecuted).
In light of his public persona, however, Schwartzenberg’s campaign buttons are a bit surreal — they are a rather characteristic yellow and pink, and they portray the baron with a pink mohawk and under him the slogan: Karel for PreSIDent. I have absolutely no idea what the message is here, because I honestly can’t draw any clear parallels between a stately 75-year old duke with (relatively, for eastern Europe) conservative views and the bassist of the Sex Pistols.
I am one of many people for whom the Sex Pistols were formative stuff, and all of a sudden I find “Anarchy in the UK” playing in my head as I try to make sense of the first direct election in my country’s history. It adds a tint of the comically absurd to the whole thing.
The moderator announces that today’s debate will largely concern symbolism and questions of morality (practical policy matters had been discussed in last week’s debate). The debate commences. Dignity is discussed. Attitude toward foreign policy is discussed. Campaign funding transparency is discussed, putting frontrunner Zeman into visibly hot water. The European Union is discussed at length.
Seemingly trivial matters, such as whether or not it’s important for the president to drive a Czech-made car, are discussed. (Roithová states her ambivalence on the matter, but points out with a smile that she likes riding her Czech-made bike, earning likeability points.) Allegations of past scandals are brought up, jokes are made at the expense of the (unpopular) departing president. Vladimír Franz (he of the tattoos) recites a poem.
There is earnest ideology. There is anger. There is comic relief intentional and unintentional.
I think about how very geographically specific this all is — the things we are talking about, the things we are angry about, the things we are laughing about. Similar processes must happen in Slovenia and Peru and all the other countries in which people elect officials, but of course I know nothing about them.
Then, for a long time, the would-be future presidents discuss what it means to be Czech. If Czech-made bikes are a specific in-joke, this, at least, has elements of the universal — people across the world wrestle with who they are and where they came from.
There is a brief interlude in which a boys’ choir is to sing the second verse of the national anthem. Before the choir commences, the moderator asks whether any of the nine candidates know the words to its second verse. No one does, though the opera composer Franz drills the moderator on its date of origin and rhythmic signature. As the choir sings, though, I notice one person who does — my grandmother, who is singing along under her breath.
Though some people may be undecided at this point, I doubt anyone in the room is entirely neutral. I notice my opinion swayed by the appearance and comportment of the candidates. Though I disagree with, for example, many of Madam Bobošíková’s political views, it is her imperiously ringing voice, Botoxed visage, and simpering plasticine smile that make me want to punch something. (I am far from alone in this — Blobošíková, as some have unfortunately dubbed her, is often derided by the press as a careerist with a history of immoral opportunism, and hers is the only comment during the evening to be openly booed by an otherwise reasonably polite audience).
Schwartzenberg’s famous charisma is on display, while Roithová leans on her image of serene dignity and Fischerová on her earnest goodwill. Zeman seems from this vantage point to get more toadlike as the evening wears on. In theory, we claim to try to base our vote on position and not appearance, but it would be useless to deny its role.
In between questions, the tv screens play short clips from recent Czech history. Czech political history has tangled roots — the woman sitting next to me, my grandmother, has lived through four separate regimes: the First Republic, Nazi German rule, communism, and post-communist democracy. We watch grainy footage of Nazi parades and Soviet tanks, and later, protesting university students and visiting American presidents. In short, we watch our little, Czech-specific history, the history that has brought us to this point.
After two hours, the debate winds to an end. The candidates urge us to go vote. We stand to hear the national anthem sung. I watch the nine podiums and the people around me, and there is a sense of gravity in the room. Despite elements of the comic and absurd, this is earnest. Our political situation is a tangled post-communist mess, but this is not the butt end of another ever-witty “In Soooviet Russia, ____ ____ you!” joke.
The nine candidates, all with different views (be they “good”, “evil”, or anything in between) aren’t here to perform a farce, and the people in the stands are here because they want a president that will lead their country, such as it is, in a manner they approve of. Our little history may not interest our neighbours, and our neighbours’ little history may not interest us. That, however, does not prevent it from unfolding.