Czech vote pits Kremlin-friendly populist against pro-EU liberal

Challenger pledges to restore liberal, pro-EU outlook by ousting often-divisive incumbent

A woman walks past a vandalised electoral poster of incumbent president Milos Zeman ahead of a presidential election run-off in Prague, Czech Republic. The poster reads: “Stop migrants and Drahos. This is our land! Vote Zeman!” Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

A woman walks past a vandalised electoral poster of incumbent president Milos Zeman ahead of a presidential election run-off in Prague, Czech Republic. The poster reads: “Stop migrants and Drahos. This is our land! Vote Zeman!” Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

 

The Czech Republic is voting in a presidential election run-off between rivals who could seek to foster closer co-operation with the European Union or tilt the country towards Russia and “rebel” member states such as Poland and Hungary.

Milos Zeman is running for a second term on pledges to keep out refugees and prevent EU meddling in Czech affairs, and he has sought to dismiss fears around his frequent visits to Russia and calls for a rapprochement with the Kremlin.

His challenger Jiri Drahos is a chemistry professor and former head of the Czech academy of sciences, who pledges to restore dignity, decency and a liberal, pro-EU outlook to Prague Castle by ousting the often blunt and divisive incumbent.

The Czech presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but whoever emerges on top from voting on Friday and Saturday will have a major part to play in trying to end the country’s current political uncertainty.

One of the tasks of the head of state is to nominate a prime minister, and Mr Zeman (73) is adamant the role should be filled by Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman whose Ano party easily won a parliamentary election last October.

An election poster for presidential candidate Jiri Drahos ahead of the second round of presidential elections in Prague, Czech Republic. The slogan reads: “Together for a free and safe country”. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA
An election poster for presidential candidate Jiri Drahos ahead of the second round of presidential elections in Prague, Czech Republic. The slogan reads: “Together for a free and safe country”. Photograph: Martin Divisek/EPA

The two men share anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views and, although Mr Babis is a pragmatist who says he values EU and Nato membership, critics fear that in tandem the pair may show the kind of disregard for the rule of law that has put the EU at loggerheads with populist leaders in Hungary and Poland.

Accused of fraud

Mr Babis failed to secure parliamentary approval as premier earlier this month but Mr Zeman immediately nominated him again, regardless of the fact that the tycoon is accused of fraud over the alleged misuse of EU funds.

Mr Drahos (68) insists the Czech Republic should not be led by a person facing prosecution, and he would be expected to urge Mr Babis to step aside and allow an Ano party colleague to become premier.

Such a move would probably break the deadlock in the Czech parliament and allow Ano to forge a coalition with moderate, mainstream parties, rather than trying to rule with a minority while courting support from far-right and communist deputies.

Mr Zeman won the initial round of voting a fortnight ago with 38.6 per cent to Mr Drahos’s 26.6 per cent, but the challenger immediately received endorsements from several other candidates who were eliminated after the first stage.