Although Ross School of Business Prof. Jan Svejnar was narrowly defeated by incumbent Vaclav Klaus for the presidency of the Czech Republic last Friday, Svejnar said he considers his showing a “major success.”
Initially the election’s underdog, Svejnar gained support from a significant number of parliament members with varied political affiliations.
Friday’s election marked the Czech parliament’s second attempt to choose a president. In the first election, held Feb. 8 and 9, neither candidate had the 140 votes necessary to hold a majority. During that election, Klaus received 139 votes and Svejnar received 113.
The second time around, two Svejnar supporters changed their allegiances, leaving Klaus with 141 votes to Svejnar’s 111.
Many Czech officials, including Svejnar, said they believe the two parliament members received a “significant monetary payoff” to support the incumbent.
Svejnar said part of the reason he ran was to combat rampant bribery in the Czech government.
“There was an incredible amount of pressure tactics and corruption,” Svejnar said. “What we have done is, I think, contributed in a major way to the progress of the young democracy that exists here.”
After he finishes his sabbatical, Svejnar plans to return to his position at the University. In addition to his post at the Business school, Svejnar is also the director of the International Policy Center in the Ford School of Public Policy and an Economics professor in LSA.
Klaus’ victory was not unexpected, but Svejnar held widespread support with citizens and legislators.
Svejnar began his run as the candidate of the Green Party, which accounts for just 2 percent of the parliament. As he campaigned, though, Svejnar slowly gained the support of most of the Czech Republic’s many political parties, including the Social Democratic Party, which nominated him for president.
The majority party – the right-wing Civic Democratic Party – which controls 45 percent of parliament, supported Klaus.
But, after the combined six rounds of voting, the election hinged on the decision of Communist Party members, who had not endorsed either candidate.
After the first election ended in a stalemate, the 29 Communist Party members in the parliament said they would support Svejnar in the next election if he met certain demands.
They wanted Svejnar – and the parties backing him – to promise that he would not back the United States’ efforts to build anti-missile radar facilities in the country. Svejnar had already made statements in support of such action and was not willing to change his position – even if it meant losing the election.
“I was just not going to yield to their conditions,” Svejnar said. “I think that’s another thing people appreciated. I stated openly what my position was and I stuck to my guns.”
While many Czechs were initially skeptical of Svejnar because of his American citizenship, he eventually became the public favorite.
A poll conducted in December suggested only 28 percent of Czech citizens would have voted for Svejnar in a public election. But, a poll from earlier this month showed 55 percent of Czechs preferred Svejnar to the incumbent.
Svejnar’s support is largely due to the American-style campaign he has led.
Because the president is chosen by the parliament and not in a direct public election, Czech presidential hopefuls usually campaign by speaking with legislators, but Svejnar spent a great deal of time speaking to citizens.
Svejnar’s daughter, LSA senior Laura Svejnar, said the strategy helped her father’s campaign.
“It was a risky thing to bring an American-style campaign, because he didn’t know how it would be perceived, but it went over really well,” she said.
Laura Svejnar said her family was excited by her father’s success, but was not expecting him to win. Instead, she said the campaign process was meant to introduce Svejnar as a possible candidate for future presidential elections. Svejnar has served as an advisor to government officials in the past, but hasn’t held public office.
Svejnar said he will consider the possibility of running for the presidency in the future, but hasn’t made a decision yet.
“A lot of people expect me to, but depending on the circumstances, I may or may not run.” Svejnar said. “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Although the past three months have been exciting, Svejnar said he looked forward to returning to Ann Arbor.
“The good thing is that it has had a major, positive effect on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe,” Svejnar said. “And the other positive effect is that I can come back and be with the students and faculty at Michigan.”