February 20, 2014


Jan Svejnar and Andrés Velasco have a lot in common. Each currently teaches at SIPA, and each has tried to make the jump from academia to politics. In a discussion moderated by Dean Merit E. Janow, Svejnar and Velasco recalled their experience as presidential candidates in the Czech Republic and Chile, respectively, and shared the lessons they learned — lessons that aspiring leaders among SIPA students might take to heart.

The February 17 event was a program of the Center on Global Economic Governance.

Jan Svejnar ran for president of the Czech Republic in 2008 with the endorsement of Vaclav Havel, the nation’s first president of the post-communist era. Svejnar had previously served as an advisor to Havel and had also been invited to serve as interim prime minister in 1998 following the sudden collapse of the government led by Vaclav Klaus. But Klaus, who had succeeded Havel in 2003, was elected again in 2008, defeating Svejnar.

Svejnar said he wanted to open the country to the world, bring in Western standards, implement economic reforms, and cut down corruption. He said that one reason he lost was the fact that he had “insufficient Czechness.” Svejnar explained that he was just 17 years old when he left what was then Czechoslovakia. Although he had considerable international experience, his limited recognition among Czechs proved to be a disadvantage.

Andrés Velasco’s attempt to win the presidency of Chile came more recently, in mid-2013, when he ran in the primary election of the center-left coalition New Majority. The field of candidates included former president Michelle Bachelet, under whom Velasco had served as minister of finance from 2006 to 2010.

“I knew my chances were slim,” Velasco said. “I was playing against Brazil in Maracana — competing against a formidable politician who was also my boss.”

Velasco, who ran as an independent candidate and finished second in the primary to Bachelet, who went on to win the November presidential election.

But despite the outcome, Velasco said, the campaign was “a lot of fun and the most electrifying thing” he has done.

He talked about the importance of language in politics, citing a recent column by David Brooks. “As the New York Times columnist says, in academia you use words to discover, but in politics you use words to establish a connection,” Velasco said. “In Latin America you don’t talk about economic reforms; you talk about economic transformation. Language definitely matters.”

For Svejnar, the campaign was “extremely demanding.”

“I learned that the most important thing was to not make a mistake,” he said. “If you are running for president and you say something you regret later, there is no way to go back.”

— Valle Aviles Pinedo MIA’14

CGEG: SIPA's Influence on Global Governance: Can Academics be Presidents?