Prague — If the pundits are correct, the Czech Republic may become the first country other than Israel to elect a Jewish president.
Jan Fischer, 62, an understated former prime minister who led a caretaker government following a coalition collapse in 2009, is neck and neck in the polls with another former government head as the nation holds its first round of presidential elections on Friday and Saturday.
The two front-runners advance to a runoff, and political prognosticators are predicting that Fischer will reach the second round.
“He’s like our Joe Lieberman,” said Tomas Kraus, chairman of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, referring to the failed U.S. vice presidential candidate. “Whether or not you support him, you can’t help but be proud he has come this far.”
Technically speaking, Europe has had a Jewish president: Ruth Dreifuss, who was president of the Swiss Confederation in 1999. But the Swiss presidency is a one-year rotating post, not a popularly elected position, and the president doesn’t really have broader powers than the other members of the Swiss Federal Council.
Europe has had other Jewish heads of government, aside from Fischer: Leon Blum, who was prime minister of France in the 1930s and ’40s, and Austria’s Bruno Kreisky, who served as prime minister from 1970 to 1983. Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli came from Jewish stock, but his family converted out of the faith before he was born.
Fischer, whose career highlights include running the Czech Statistical Office and serving as vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, slipped from first to second in the polls following a lackluster performance last week in a televised debate.
His ascent from skilled technocrat to high-echelon politics – and possibly to Prague Castle – sheds light on the region’s nuanced relationship with Judaism and Israel.
Running on a platform promoting economic growth and political transparency, Fischer also is known for his pride in what he calls the Czech Republic’s “very friendly relations with Israel.” He noted that the Czech Republic was consistently one of Europe’s most ardent supporters of Israel in times of crisis, a tradition dating back to the 1920s when the first Czechoslovak president, Tomas Garyk Masaryk, endorsed the creation of the Jewish state.