PRAGUE (Reuters) - A 75-year-old prince with a centuries-old lineage and a taste for the unconventional has won a surprise following in his bid for the Czech presidency with a “punk rock” campaign that has energized Czechs weary of the current political class.
Karel Schwarzenberg has struck a chord among young voters by mixing old world charm with posters showing him with a purple mohawk over the slogan “Karel for PreSident”, a reference to bassist Sid Vicious of the punk rock band the Sex Pistols.
In real life, Schwarzenberg wears a three-piece suit and bow tie and smokes a pipe, but his supporters appreciate that he can poke fun at himself.
He is running neck-and-neck with leftist Milos Zeman ahead of a runoff vote in the country’s first presidential election this weekend. Previous presidents were selected by parliament in back-room deals which led to public demands for a direct vote.
“He can bring something that is missing in this country, some class and morality,” said student Kamil Valsik, 25.
“There is a lot of theft going on. He will not steal, he is ‘old money’. That’s why I want him,” he said, reflecting many Czechs’ frustration with widespread corruption.
Currently the foreign minister, Schwarzenberg worked as chancellor to the first post-communist President Vaclav Havel in the early 1990s. Supporters see him as heir to the dissident writer and human rights activist who united the nation in the peaceful 1989 “Velvet Revolution”.
His campaign is run by friends from his favorite Prague hangout Mlejn (The Mill), a smoky cafe where students mix with artists and can chat with Schwarzenberg, who can often goes there for a nightcap.
He once brought a somewhat puzzled Condoleezza Rice there when she visited Prague as U.S. Secretary of State.
The punk-rock motif is the work of long-time friend sculptor David Cerny. Cerny’s “Entropa”, a satirical sculpture poking harsh fun at European nations through stereotypes, shocked Europe when it was unveiled in 2009 at the building in Brussels where EU summits are held.
“The chances looked so slim that I thought we had to go on the edge,” Cerny told Reuters. “Punk is image ... the point is that I still see Karel as non-conformist, someone different than the rest of the bunch in politics.”
Dozens of rock bands have played free shows for “Karel” and people wear pins with his punk image, an unusual sight in the Czech Republic, where the public is rarely active in campaigns.
Czech presidents do not wield much day-to-day power, but the post has great symbolic value. Presidents represent Czechs abroad and pick central bankers, prime ministers and judges.
Even if he ends up losing, the outpouring of support for Schwarzenberg shows that many Czechs are unhappy with the political establishment.
Schwarzenberg was born into a family that owned big tracts of Czech and Austrian land for centuries but were forced to flee when the Communists took over in 1948. Schwarzenberg lived in Austria until 1989.
In exile, he supported the Czech anti-communist human rights movement and sponsored a library of banned Czech literature while taking care of the family estates. Without fanfare, he has also been financially supporting artists in need.
Critics say it is impossible to separate Schwarzenberg from the rest of the political class, given he became a senator in 2004 and minister in 2007, and has powerful business friends.
But for many voters, the main thing going for Schwarzenberg is that he is not his rival Zeman, who as prime minister in 1998-2002 ruled under a power-sharing deal with current President Vaclav Klaus.
Opponents see that period as one of the darkest in the modern republic, when corruption flourished and police and the justice system failed to crack down on widespread graft. Klaus is now backing Zeman.
“I want to change politics a little bit,” Schwarzenberg said in a recent radio interview. “We have to realize our responsibility for the country and the nation, we have to realize that unhinged corruption is not the way to go.”
Schwarzenberg is a strong backer of European integration and fan of eventual adoption of the euro, in contrast to the anti-EU Klaus.
“In a globalised world where our economy is interconnected with the whole of Europe ... talking about solely national sovereignty is an illusion,” he said. “That time has passed.”
Schwarzenberg also backed a 2007 plan, later shelved, to build a U.S. missile defense radar in the Czech Republic.
Schwarzenberg calls himself a conservative, but his voters include those in urban liberal circles and young people.
His appeal wanes in the countryside and among poorer Czechs, for whom he represents a center-right government that has cut social support and suffered several graft scandals. He also formed a political party with unpopular Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek, seen as connected to business interests.
Some say Schwarzenberg is too old and point to his tendency to fall sleep in meetings and slur his speech.
Klaus attacked Schwarzenberg last week for not being Czech enough because he lived in exile so many years.
Zeman accused him of supporting the cause of 3 million ethnic Germans expelled from the country after World War Two after he said in a television debate last week that the expulsion, in today’s world, could be seen as a war crime.
This could hurt Schwarzenberg with many voters who fear that the Germans could get their confiscated property back if the expulsion is questioned, despite legal and political assurances to the contrary.
Additional reporting by Jana Mlcochova; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall