Political temperature rises in Czech Republic ahead of presidential run-off

Populist president and liberal challenger disagree over scandal-hit premier

Czech president Milos Zeman (L) and former Czech Science Academy head and independent candidate for the Czech presidential election Jiri Drahos. Photograph: Zhao Wang/AFP/Getty Images

Czech president Milos Zeman (L) and former Czech Science Academy head and independent candidate for the Czech presidential election Jiri Drahos. Photograph: Zhao Wang/AFP/Getty Images

 

The political temperature in the Czech Republic is rising ahead of a presidential election run-off and uncertainty over prospects for a new government.

Eurosceptic and anti-immigration president Milos Zeman fell well short of a majority in voting on Friday and Saturday, and is now in danger of being ousted by liberal challenger Jiri Drahos in a second and deciding round later this month.

Mr Zeman took 38.6 per cent and Prof Drahos 26.6 per cent, but the former head of the Czech academy of sciences also secured the public support of other first-round contenders who claimed 32.5 per cent of votes between them.

“It looks promising. We’re moving from the group stage to the final,” said Prof Drahos (68).

“By far the toughest game now awaits against Milos Zeman and his advisers...Come to vote, come to vote, come to vote,” he urged his compatriots ahead of the January 26th-27th run-off.

Mr Zeman (73) also rallied supporters and dismissed doubts over whether he could find the additional votes needed to retain the keys to Prague Castle.

“I invite all those who want to vote for me to come to the polling stations in round two too, and bring your friends, your lovers and their mistresses,” he said.

“In the previous presidential election (in 2013), I got 24 per cent in the first round and 54 per cent in round two, and this year already 40 per cent in round one.”

Debate

In a change of tactics, Mr Zeman said he was ready to hold a debate with Prof Drahos, after refusing to appear in public with his rivals earlier in the campaign.

“I’ve never been afraid to take part in various discussions. I’m still young and full of strength and energy,” he insisted, brushing off widespread concern over the health of a diabetes-sufferer who continues to be a proud smoker and drinker.

Polls suggest Mr Zeman is now a much more divisive figure than at the last election, however, having spent much of his presidency berating the EU and fanning fear over a migration crisis that he calls a Muslim Brotherhood plot to seize Europe.

Pro-Russia

He has also focussed foreign policy efforts on courting Russia and China, denouncing western sanctions on Moscow and urging Ukraine to accept the Kremlin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Mr Zeman’s plain speaking and disdain for political correctness resonate in Czech provinces that resent the wealth and perceived corruption of the Prague political elite and the EU, and he has deepened this split in the nation of 10.6 million.

In this weekend’s ballot, Prof Drahos only beat Mr Zeman in Prague and among Czechs abroad, but he is now likely to attract many other anti-Zeman voters with his pledge to restore dignity, moderation and liberal values to the presidency.

Prof Drahos said he would now travel around the regions, where he will seek to quash criticism that he is bland and lacks the common touch of his rival.

Several politicians and analysts said Prof Drahos should also brace for attacks from pro-Zeman media orchestrated by presidential aides with close connections to Russia.

The Czech head of state’s duties are largely ceremonial, but current political uncertainty gives the president major influence.

The government of new billionaire prime minister Andrej Babis is expected to lose a confidence vote in parliament this week, due to fraud allegations against one of the Eurosceptic tycoon’s many firms. He denies wrongdoing.

Mr Zeman tapped Mr Babis to run the cabinet and would like to do so again, but Prof Drahos has said it is unacceptable for a premier to face prosecution and he could seek a compromise candidate to lead the government.