Copious mud flies as starting pistol is fired on Czech presidential race

Copious mud flies as starting pistol is fired on Czech presidential race
Populist President Zeman has polarised Czech society. In November 2014 in Prague, in a demonstration named "I Want to Talk to You, Mr. President", Czechs showed red cards to Zeman in a protest at his pro-Russia stance and vulgar language.
By Will Conroy in Prague November 8, 2017

Mud flew from multiple directions as the deadline fell for nominations in the race for the Czech presidency.

Andrej Babis—the billionaire ‘anti-politician’ set to become Czech prime minister following the late October general election landslide achieved by his anti-establishment Ano movement—on November 7 made a lively intervention, stating that the candidacy of former centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) PM Mirek Topolanek, announced at the last minute, was a “mockery”. Topolanek, he said, had been the “most corrupt head of government in the Czech Republic's history”.

Babis, himself facing a fraud investigation, said he saw Topolanek as the joint candidate of “symbol of corruption” Miroslav Kalousek—a former finance minister during Topolanek’s 2006-2009 administration but now merely a leading light in the liberal-conservative TOP 09 party, the parliamentary representation of which was almost wiped out in the election—and ODS. Kalousek quickly responded with a tweet saying: "I understand the logic of Andrej Babis. Topolanek by preventing his ministers from 'taking from Andrej' provoked a feeling in him that others offered more."

‘Beware the Babis-Zeman power pact’
ODS, which came second in the election, though a distant second, has been warning that should Kremlin-friendly and brazen-faced President Milos Zeman be re-elected he will activate a power pact with fellow populist Babis in which he will essentially take over foreign policy despite the constitutional arrangement that the Czech president serves a largely ceremonial purpose.

Flinging his own barbs, the outspoken Topolanek told Pravo daily that the last straw for him when deciding whether to run was a horrible post-election press conference given by Zeman and Babis which, if it had been a scene out of a Monty Python movie, he would have laughed about. It was, however, rather a sad Czech politics reality show, he said.

Topolanek, nevertheless, told journalists at a press conference that he respects 73-year-old Zeman, a former Social Democrat (CSSD) leader (1993-2001) and prime minister (1998-2002) for his previous political achievements. He added that he would like to see Zeman go down in history as the PM who led the country into Nato, not as the president who raped the constitutional order and “kowtowed to undemocratic big powers”.

ODS has endorsed Topolanek as a non-partisan candidate for president, having decided, like the other parties in parliament, not to nominate its own contender. Party leader Petr Fiala said that his party’s main goal is to prevent Zeman’s re-election. ODS, an Atlanticist party, views Topolanek as someone who can take on the Zeman-Babis power pact, Fiala said.

However, Vaclav Klaus Jr., a highly popular up and coming ODS politician and son of the former president and ODS founder Vaclav Klaus, who some view as capable of eventually challenging Fiala for the ODS chairmanship, came out against Topolanek. Klaus Jr. remarked that he does not belong to the “political-business group Kalousek & Co.” and will therefore not vote for Topolanek.

After his government came to an end having failed a vote of confidence, Topolanek left politics to go into business. He has been a member of the board of Eustream, Slovakia's gas transport utility monopoly, and head of the supervisory board of the Elektrarny Opatovice energy company, a part of the giant EPH energy holding. It has wished him luck, but has stopped short of contributing to his campaign funds.

Fighting associations with corruption
Fighting back against associations with corruption, Topolanek reportedly vowed that as president he would not grant a pardon to his friend and former close aide, lobbyist Marek Dalik, who has this week started serving a five-year jail sentence for soliciting a bribe in connection with a military contract for armoured personnel carriers.

As president, Zeman has proved a pro-Russian, pro-Beijing, anti-elite candidate who has polarised Czech politics. He has lambasted the EU for opening the way to Muslim mass immigration, which he has denounced as an "organised invasion" of Europe.

Zeman has also called for a referendum on a Czexit from the EU. Only the citizens should decide on this matter, he says, although he claims that his own position is that the country should remain in the bloc. Zeman has also frequently castigated urban elites that he describes as the "Prague coffeehouse society" which is far removed from real-life problems.

Politicians vs non-politicians and a vote East, or a vote West
Before the entrance of Topolanek into the race for the Castle, the only candidate who looked capable of giving Zeman a run for his money was Jiri Drahos, a chemist who served as president of the Czech Academy of Sciences from 2009 to earlier this year.

Responding to the new shape of the battle for the presidency, Drahos told Czech media that Topolanek represents the same things as Zeman, namely boorishness, vulgarity and a lack of respect for opponents’ views. Referring to Zeman and Topolanek as the two “matadors” of Czech politics, Drahos said voters would witness a contest of politicians versus non-politicians like himself and Michal Horacek, the pop music lyricist and millionaire former co-owner of betting company Fortuna. Like Horacek, Drahos is very much supportive of the Czech Republic’s EU and Nato memberships and the country’s continued orientation towards the West.

Zeman, whom the most recent polls predicted would land around a third of the vote in the first round (unless a candidate scores an absolute majority of votes there will be a second round run-off between the contenders that come first and second), remains the clear favourite with the bookmakers to win re-election, although one poll back in September, conducted by Median, found Drahos would beat Zeman with 55.5% of the vote in a second round.

The president was buoyed on November 7 by an announcement from Tomio Okamura, leader of the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party which came third in the general election with 11% of the vote, that he has decided that he will not run in the election. Pravo reported Okamura as, after visiting Zeman at Lany Castle, saying that the SPD has four criteria for supporting a presidential candidate. These were given as support for direct democracy, opposition to Islam in the Czech Republic, a refusal to accept migrants coming into the country as part of the migrant wave, and support for Czech interests as against those of Brussels. The SPD is also pushing for a referendum on a Czexit and Babis, as PM, may be minded to pass a referendum law that would pave the way to such a vote.

Question mark over Zeman’s physical fitness for office
Zeman has been battling suggestions that his health might preclude him from going on as president. His public appearances have recently been limited because of the difficulties he has with walking. He has lately denied that he suffers from gout, while saying that after many years he is now free of diabetes. Czech media have reported him as suffering from a diabetic complication, polyneuropathy.

One test of his stamina will occur between November 21-24 when Zeman will lead the largest ever Czech corporate delegation of over 120 companies to Russia. "The interest in the Russian mission is huge and the number of the firms applying for participation can be still expected to slightly rise. We have registered 124 participants for now," Czech Confederation of Industry spokeswoman Eva Velickova told CTK. During the trip, Zeman is due to have a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

A total of 19 candidates registered for the presidential race before the deadline expired at 16:00 on November 7, although it is thought that less than half have met all the formal conditions. The election’s first round will be held on January 12-13. A second round, if necessary, will follow two weeks later.