Divided Czechs face stark choice in tight presidential run-off
Anti-immigration Eurosceptic Milos Zeman faces off against placid liberal professor Jiri Drahos
Czech presidential candidate Jiri Drahos and incumbent Milos Zeman attend a televised debate ahead of an election run-off, in Prague. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters
Twenty-eight years ago, Simon Panek was looking ahead to a bright future for a Czechoslovakia that had suddenly been freed from communism by the Velvet Revolution, in which he had helped lead huge student protests against the regime.
Like many Czechs, Panek now wonders what could have been done differently in his country and the region, as Eurosceptic, anti-immigration populists exploit people’s disillusionment and their yearning for supposedly simpler times.
Most Czechs abandoned “establishment” parties in parliamentary elections last October, and the far right finished a strong fourth behind the Ano party of tycoon Andrej Babis, who pledges to keep out refugees and resist deeper EU integration.
When they go to the polls again on Friday and Saturday to elect a president, Czechs must choose between starkly different visions of their country and its place in Europe.
Incumbent Milos Zeman (73) wants a referendum on Czech membership of the EU and Nato, claims mass migration to Europe is an “invasion” plot by the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposes western sanctions on his close ally Russia. He is a proud smoker, drinker and enemy of political correctness and liberal mores.
Vulgar and divisive politics
His rival, Jiri Drahos (68), is a placid chemistry professor who wants his country to help the EU solve questions on reform and immigration. The former president of the Czech academy of sciences says he wants to banish vulgar and divisive politics from Prague Castle and “reconnect [it] with the liberal vision.”
“Zeman offers an illusion that the old simple days will come back,” Panek says in the Prague headquarters of People in Need, the humanitarian organisation he founded in 1992, as many fellow Velvet Revolution activists plunged into politics.
“He is like [US president Donald] Trump and the Brexit campaigners in some ways. He says let’s get rid of the complications of our time, when life moves too quickly and can feel overcomplicated and chaotic.”
Zeman won the first round of the election, beating Drahos everywhere except in the capital and among votes cast abroad, to lend weight to his portrayal of the ballot as a clash between the provincial pub and the Prague cafe.
It is in the Czech regions that disenchantment with the political elite is felt most strongly, among people who are sick of corruption scandals and a sense that the shift to capitalism and EU membership have made a privileged few filthy rich.
“After 1989, I had a feeling the only thing we needed was freedom and the free market. They would solve everything,” recalls Panek (50).
“We saw that western Europe functioned, and life and the economy there were better for people . . . but we didn’t realise that under the surface of that freedom and the free market was a huge construction of the rule of law, political culture, media culture and so on – we just wanted to jump into unlimited freedom,” he says.
“Since then we’ve been trying to fix it and find the equilibrium. The same mistake basically happened in all post-communist countries.”
Populist governments in Hungary, Poland and Romania are now accused of launching power grabs that threaten their fragile democracies and rule of law. If Zeman were to rule in tandem with his ally Babis – who is accused of EU funding fraud – many Czechs fear that their country could follow a similar path.
Uncertainty over the next government makes these presidential elections unusually important, because Zeman demands that Babis become premier while Drahos insists that he will not nominate a politician who faces prosecution.
Polls put them neck-and-neck, and a first televised debate this week only strengthened the impression of a lacklustre campaign, with Zeman looking frail and the inexperienced Drahos appearing nervous and somewhat bland.
“If we have Zeman in the castle and Babis as prime minister it might be a scary combination,” says Panek. “It’s not the end of the world . . . but I would certainly like to see more checks and balances, and someone less pragmatic and less cynical than Zeman in the Castle.”
“He doesn’t talk about the future except turning to Russia and China, which is a very risky future . . . He is always polarising, shaming, blaming, provoking, and Czech society – which is not very optimistic – is experiencing the same crisis of belief in a better future that all Europeans seems to be feeling.”
From Warsaw to Bucharest, NGOs are coming under mounting pressure from governments that reject some of the liberal values that the former Soviet bloc embraced after 1989.
People in Need, which works in war zones and disaster areas around the world with an annual budget of more than €70 million, is yet to feel the squeeze.
“Civil society here is pretty strong and getting stronger with everything that is happening now in politics,” says Panek. “We feel less pressure than civil society in Poland or Hungary – so far.”