Czechs vote as liberals challenge populist Eurosceptic president
At a Prague polling station, topless activist berates Milos Zeman over his Russian ties
Czechs have begun voting in a presidential election that is expected to deliver a tight finish between Eurosceptic, Russia-friendly incumbent Milos Zeman and liberal challenger Jiri Drahos, a scientist who backs close co-operation with Brussels.
Opponents of Mr Zeman fear unchecked populism if he wins another term and rules alongside new Czech prime minister Andrej Babis, a business tycoon who is also critical of the EU and rejects its quota plan to resettle refugees in member states.
Polls suggest Mr Zeman will beat eight other candidates in voting on Friday and Saturday but is unlikely to take more than 50 per cent, setting the scene for a run-off in a fortnight that Mr Drahos could win by uniting the anti-Zeman vote.
After a low-key campaign in which Mr Zeman (73) refused to debate with his rivals, he arrived at a Prague polling station and was confronted by a topless female activist who repeatedly shouted “Zeman – Putin’s slut!” in reference to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
A pair of Mr Zeman’s bodyguards ushered him away while others wrestled the woman to the ground, handcuffed her and removed her from the building.
Protest group Femen said the woman was one of its Ukrainian members, Angelina Diash, and compared Mr Zeman to other allegedly pro-Kremlin “political prostitutes” like US president Donald Trump and French far-right leader Marie Le Pen.
“As you can see, my security detail works quite well because she did not get to me,” Mr Zeman said when he returned to cast his vote.
Mr Zeman’s derogatory comments about groups ranging from refugees to journalists are a feature of his “man-of-the-people” style, which is popular with many Czechs but has brought him few invitations to western capitals in recent years.
As his eight challengers held a final debate on the eve of the election, Mr Zeman appeared on his favoured Barrandov television channel and made a final appeal to his supporters, most of whom are in the provinces rather than strongly liberal Prague.
Prof Drahos, a chemical engineer and former president of the Czech academy of sciences, pledges to restore the dignity and honour to the presidency that he says Mr Zeman has squandered since entering Prague Castle in 2013.
Analysts say Prof Drahos (68) would be a moderating influence on Mr Babis, who is struggling to secure parliament’s approval for his government due to allegations that one of his firms fraudulently accessed €2 million in EU funds.
Mr Babis declared his support for Mr Zeman on Thursday, calling him “a strong personality ...who fights for our national interests, he is not afraid to clearly state his opinion on Brussels, [refugee] quotas, he fights for the interests of our entrepreneurs.”