Czech president’s ‘vulgar’ populism faces a tough test

Eurosceptic Miloš Zeman is under threat from a pro-EU challenger in presidential vote

The main challenger in this week’s Czech presidential elections has vowed to restore a liberal, pro-EU outlook to his country if he defeats Miloš Zeman, the Eurosceptic, anti-immigration incumbent who enjoys close ties with the Kremlin.

Mr Zeman is expected to win the first round of the election on Friday and Saturday but, if he fails to take more than 50 per cent of votes, pollsters predict that Jiri Drahos could unite his opponents and beat him in a run-off a fortnight later.

Critics of Mr Zeman fear the prospect of him working in tandem with new billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis, and believe Mr Drahos would moderate the tycoon's populist instincts and keep the Czech Republic in the EU mainstream.

“I will do my utmost to reconnect the presidency with the liberal vision. That is my goal and the reason I’m running for president,” Mr Drahos, a chemist and former president of the Czech academy of sciences, told The Irish Times.


First he must beat Mr Zeman, a proud smoker and drinker who disdains political correctness and revels in the liberal outrage he often provokes.

Mr Zeman dismisses speculation over his health, but has done little campaigning and refused to debate his election rivals.

Nonetheless, his blunt, man-of-the-people approach resonates with the many Czechs who are angry at the wealth and corruption of the Prague political class and share his suspicion of the EU and fear of refugees from the Middle East.

Mr Zeman claims Muslim immigrants will stone adulterous women and cut off thieves' hands if allowed to settle in Europe, and he has echoed Hungarian and Polish leaders in rejecting an EU quota plan to relocate refugees around the bloc.

Mr Drahos made clear that he would seek a far less confrontational relationship with Brussels if he secured the presidency.

“We are an integral part of the EU,” he said “and we’ll be ready to work with other members on an equal footing to deal the European Union’s problems, including immigration.”

‘Fixing’ the EU

Mr Zeman (73) has proposed a referendum on his country's membership of the EU and Nato, and some Czechs suspect that such calls could increase following parliamentary elections last October in which populist parties fared strongly.

“The EU needs to be fixed in many ways. However, we are part of the integration process and we’ll be an active member in this regard,” Mr Drahos (68) said.

“Euroscepticism is a negative way of looking at things. We are part of Europe and we always will be.”

Mr Zeman has received few invitations to western capitals during four years in Prague Castle but paid several visits to Russia, where he is given glowing media coverage and portrayed as a wise and friendly voice of reason in a "Russophobic" EU.

He calls for an end to western sanctions on Russia, and has urged Ukraine to accept that the 2014 annexation of Crimea is irreversible and to seek compensation from Moscow.

On his most recent visit to Russia in November, Mr Zeman travelled with about 140 Czech business people, prompting him to declare that his hosts were “10 times more important than France”, to which he took a much smaller delegation some years earlier.

During his previous trip to Moscow last May, he noted the size of the press corps and joked to Russian president Vladimir Putin that some of its members should be "liquidated". Five months later, at a press conference in Prague, Mr Zeman waved around a fake rifle emblazoned with the words "for journalists".

“I don’t share Mr Zeman’s agenda and I don’t agree with his approach,” Mr Drahos said. “I don’t have any of the liabilities that are sadly damaging the morality and integrity in ... politics while also undermining the office of president. Miloš Zeman has been stubborn and defensive while pursuing personal agendas and interests. This is certainly not the way I will act if elected president.”

Populist touch

Political analysts acknowledge Mr Zeman’s ability to gauge and express the concerns of many Czechs, but some suspect he has now overplayed efforts to polarise society and deepen division between Prague and the provinces.

Surveys suggest that in an election run-off, the vast majority of non-Zeman voters from the first round would swing behind Mr Drahos, giving the academic a real chance of victory.

The election comes amid political uncertainty in the Czech Republic, as Mr Babis struggles to secure parliament’s approval for his government due to allegations that one of his firms illegally accessed some €2 million in EU funding a decade ago.

Mr Zeman is a strong supporter of Mr Babis, and many Czechs are concerned by how the two anti-immigration Eurosceptics would run the country together.

"If you had a tandem of Babis and Zeman playing into each other's hands – as a duo in which neither is really a friend of parliamentary democracy and each has authoritarian tendencies – then the outcome is pretty bad," argued Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and director of New York University in Prague.

“If we had Drahos with Babis, I think the outcome would be moderated ... and things would be much more calm,” he said.

“Zeman is vulgar and low – it’s unfortunate but also true. It’s also true that he has a kind of charisma and post-communist outlook that appeals to about 50 per cent of Czech voters. Drahos is dignified and decent and moderate. So that [contrast] in itself would give you two very different outcomes.”