Czech Republic: going to the wire

A moderate, pro-western scientist is in with a chance of winning the presidency

Former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences and presidential candidate Jiri Drahos has a real chance of winning the January 26th-27th decider. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

Former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences and presidential candidate Jiri Drahos has a real chance of winning the January 26th-27th decider. Photograph: Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

 

A Eurosceptic, anti-immigration populist with close ties to Russia has won central Europe’s first big election battle of the year, but may yet lose his fight to retain the Czech presidency.

Milos Zeman took 38.6 percent in voting on Friday and Saturday but, in a closer than expected race, scientist Jiri Drahos earned a run-off by securing 26.6 percent on a vow to restore liberal values and a pro-EU outlook to Prague Castle.

Crucially, Drahos also gained pledges of support from other candidates who took a total of more than 30 percent of ballots, giving the former head of the Czech academy of sciences a real chance of winning the January 26th-27th decider.

Zeman has polarised Czechs by deriding groups ranging from Muslims to journalists to vegetarians, while revelling in his disdain for political correctness and the outrage of Prague “cafe society”. His blunt approach has found a solid core of support in the provinces where resentment of the capital’s elite and the EU are strong, but also made him a figure of shame and disgust to a similar number of Czechs.

Like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, Zeman panders to the far right by whipping up fear over Muslim refugees and migrants, and courts Russia with frequent visits and calls for an end to western sanctions on Moscow.

Drahos would promote a moderate and pro-western worldview in an important central European state. The minority government of billionaire Czech premier Andrej Babis is expected to lose a parliamentary confidence vote this week, amid allegations – which he denies – that one of his firms fraudulently accessed EU funds.

Zeman would like to give the tycoon a second chance to form a cabinet, and they have formed a loose alliance around their Eurosceptic and anti-immigration views.

Drahos says he will not nominate a Czech prime minister who is facing prosecution, however – and a growing number of Czechs seem to favour the mild-mannered chemistry professor’s political formula for their nation’s future.

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