Saturday, January 26, 2013

Who's the worst

Today is the close of the Czech presidential elections, the first direct elections in the country's history. (From the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918 through the split of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak Republics, the president has always been elected by the parliament.)

Earlier in the month, there were two days of voting in the first round, with 9 candidates. The top vote-getter was Miloš Zeman, who had been prime minister from 1998 to 2002 for the Social Democrats. In 2001 he formed his own party, the Citizens' Rights Party, or Zemanovci (Zemanites).

The second-place candidate was Karel Schwarzenberg, who's been the foreign minister since 2010. He's nominally the head of TOP 09, a party that was formed in 2009 (duh!) in principle as a classical liberal party (that is, small government).

Leftists are split. For some, Schwarzenberg is unacceptable because he's been part of a government that has diminished the social safety net. For others, Zeman is an untrustworthy boar (some of our students were riding the trolley and met a Czech student who spoke good English--he described Zeman as a "red-neck").

The second round, between Zeman and Schwarzenberg, started yesterday at 2pm and concludes today at 2pm. There are only 10.5 million people in the whole country, and of course not all of them are of voting age, and not all of those will vote. So even though there are paper ballots that will need to be counted by hand, results are expected maybe as early as 3pm today. (Czechs are good at math! There's also been zero concern about fraud. Most of the people we've been talking with have been pro-Schwarzenberg and seriously concerned about the direction the country will take if Zeman wins, but it seems like, if he wins, it will be universally acknowledged as the legitimate result.)

But in the meantime, while there's no news to report on the election, websites have to put something up. The tabloid Blesk had an online poll, "Who was our worst president." The Czechs are said to be obsessed with their own history. There's the time of glory under Charles IV (middle of the 14th century), the pride of King George of Poděbrady, the Hussite king (later 15th century), the battle of White Mountain, where Czech statehood was effectively extinguished (1620), ... Papa Masaryk, one of the founders of Czechoslovakia and the first president (1918-1935), Nazi occupation, liberation, communism, the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

And yet the rankings of this poll suggest the dominance of the present over historical perspective.

Who's the worst? As of 9:00 am Prague time, the winner is ...

Václav Klaus, the outgoing president, with 34%.

In second place, with 26%, Klement Gottwald, the first communist president, a drunken lout who imposed totalitarianism on the country and sent people to their deaths, to prisons, or camps.

In third place, with 18%, Václav Havel, the unifying figure of the November 1989 events that ended communism in the country. (His rankings may be hurt by being blamed for presiding over the dissolution of Czechoslovakia while he was Czechoslovak president--he went on to two terms as president of the independent Czech Republic.)

In third, with 7%, Gustav Husák, the man who took the reins after the Warsaw Pact invasion that put an end to the reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968. Husák went on to preside over the period of "normalization," in which Czech and Slovak intellectual life was smothered in order to keep this place a quiescent satellite of the Soviet Union.

There were 4% of votes for Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, president-liberator, the man who presided over most of the First Republic, a period that most Czechs look back to as a golden age. He thus comes out less popular by a hair than Emil Hácha, the man who took over the Czechoslovak presidency after the Munich accords destroyed the country in 1938. He spoke up for Czech interests every now and then, but he was basically a collaborator. In 1942, the Czech resistance assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (the Nazi ruler of the occupied country); Heydrich was also the principal architect of the Final Solution. In retribution for his killing, the Nazis destroyed the town of Lidice outside of Prague: the men were lined up and shot, the women and children were sent to camps (a few children were adopted into German families), and the village was razed to the ground. During the destruction of Lidice, Hácha was receiving a luxurious Mercedes as a 70th birthday gift from Hitler.

But sure, Masaryk was worse than Hácha.

And Klaus, corrupt as he seems to be, is worse than the guy who brought communism to Czechoslovakia.

And Havel, for all his naivete, was worse than the guy who put Havel (and others) in jail.

I sense a certain lack of historical perspective.

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