HE IS a 75-year-old aristocrat who boasts a taste for the unconventional.
But Karel, prince of Schwarzenberg, has won a surprise following among young voters in the Czech Republic with a “punk rock” campaign to become the new president.
He is currently running neck-and-neck with leftist Milos Zeman ahead of the run-off vote in the country’s first presidential election today and tomorrow.
In person, he exudes old world charm – he wears a three-piece suit and bow tie and enjoys a beer and a pipe – but his posters portray him as a punk with a purple mohawk and the slogan Karel for PreSIDent, a reference to the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious.
“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.”
Currently foreign minister, the prince worked as chancellor to the first post-Communist president Vaclav Havel in the early 1990s. Supporters see him as heir to the dissident writer who united the nation in the peaceful 1989 “Velvet Revolution”. The punk-rock motif is the work of sculptor friend David Cerny.“The chances looked so slim that I thought we had to go on the edge,” Mr Cerny said. “Punk is image … the point is that I still see Karel as non-conformist, different than the rest of the bunch in politics.”
Dozens of rock bands have played free shows for “Karel” and people wear badges with his punk image, an unusual sight in the Czech Republic.
Czech presidents do not wield much day-to-day power, but the post has 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 the prince shows many Czechs distrust the establishment. He 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. He lived in Austria until 1989.
In exile, he supported the anti-Communist rights movement and sponsored a library of banned literature while taking care of the family estates. He also supported artists in need.
Critics say it is impossible to separate the prince from the rest of the political class, given he became a senator in 2004 and minister in 2007, and has powerful business friends. His appeal wanes in the countryside and among poorer Czechs, for whom he represents a centre-right government that has cut welfare and been plagued by corruption scandals. He also formed a party with unpopular finance minister Miroslav Kalousek, seen too close to business interests.
The main thing going for him is that he is not Mr Zeman, who as premier in 1998-2002 ruled under current president Vaclav Klaus. That era is seen as one of the darkest in the republic’s history, one in which corruption flourished unchecked
“I want to change politics a little bit,” the prince said recentlyg. “We have to realise that unhinged corruption is not the way to go.”