Kremlin-friendly Czech President Milos Zeman topped the voting in the first round of the Czech Republic’s January 12-13 presidential election, but the narrowness of his victory leaves him exposed to a possible winning surge from Westward-oriented challenger Jiri Drahos in the second-round run-off.
Zeman took 38.56% of the vote while Drahos’ tally was 26.60% but the runner-up has been endorsed by third-placed candidate Pavel Fischer (10.23%), fourth-placed Michal Horacek (9.18%), fifth-placed Marek Hilser (8.83%) and sixth-placed Mirek Topolanek (4.30%). First indications were that Zeman, who according to pre-election polls was expected to win 43-44% of votes cast nationwide, performed worse in rural areas of Czechia than was anticipated.
The outspoken, hard drinking and frail 73-year-old head of state is much despised in the capital Prague but his sometimes vulgar language and forthright rejection of political correctness and immigrants typically find a receptive audience throughout the provinces. In a classic populist pitch, Zeman has tried to widen this divide. The political bruiser has memorably described it as one between the Ceska hospoda (Czech pub) and the Prazska kavarna (Prague café).
Drahos, 68, a centrist and former president of the Czech Academy of Sciences who has promised to anchor the country in the EU and NATO, was clearly pleased with his result—a result which may sound alarm bells for new Czech prime minister and Zeman ally Andrej Babis, who is struggling to form a government that will allow him to remain premier. Drahos has said that if elected president he will not tolerate having the populist agro-chemicals tycoon Babis continue as PM while he remains a subject of an investigation into an allegedly fraudulent EU subsidy application made for the Stork’s Nest conference and rural recreation centre.
Zeman, an Islamophobic populist who has spoken against the West’s sanctions against Russia and has made warm relations with China a priority, has run a non-campaign. The former Social Democrat prime minister, who has taken to sharing platforms with neo-fascists, has refused to take part in television debates, to give pre-election interviews or even to conduct a vigorous campaign, partly because of his serious health problems, but also in an effort to differentiate himself from the crowd of little-known and rather colourless rival candidates. However, in a press conference given with the vote-counting nearly over, Zeman said he is ready to conduct live debates with Drahos. “I’m still young, full of strength and full of energy and I look forward to debate,” he remarked, while urging supporters to bring along their close ones, including “relatives and lovers”, to the second-round polling stations.
As he arrived to vote in a polling station on January 12, Zeman—the only EU head of state to publicly endorse Donald Trump before he was elected—was rushed at by a woman who stripped off her shirt and shouted over and over again, “Zeman! Putin’s slut!”, a slogan that was daubed across her chest. The president’s bodyguards knocked her to the floor and Zeman, visibly shaken, was quickly escorted away. Femen, an international feminist group that originated in Ukraine, said on its website that the activist was Ukrainian citizen Angelina Diash.
Speaking to the press after the polling stations closed and turnout was put at 61%, Drahos said his second-round campaign would involve increased campaigning in the provinces. Asked how before the January 26-27 vote he intended to attract the votes that neither went to him nor Zeman in the first round but to Fischer, Hilser or Horacek, he said: “I do not see a major problem there. We have agreed that we have practically identical views on the essential issues of domestic politics and the foreign [policy] direction of the Czech Republic.”
Inspired by Kiska
Drahos, who has accused Zeman of promoting a climate of “vulgarity, incompetence and corruption” and Russia of desiring to destabilise the EU, said he takes inspiration from Slovak entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrej Kiska who won the presidency in Slovakia in early 2014, defeating Prime Minister Robert Fico. “I said to myself that even a person completely outside of politics, with a completely different background that is not under the political shadows of the past, can win against a very experienced politician,” said Drahos.
Horacek said in his post-ballot press conference that he would be happy to support Drahos in the second round and would offer him his pre-paid billboards.
Perhaps the most disappointing election performance was that of former prime minister Topolanek whose bid for the presidency was announced at the last minute. “I must say that heart, good sense and a smile were not enough,” he told the media, urging those who voted for him to now switch their support to Drahos.