Czech President Milos Zeman and rival candidate Jiri Drahos are running neck and neck ahead of the presidential election run-off on January 26-27, according to a poll for Czech Television published on January 21.
Zeman would win 45.5%, while Drahos would win 45%, well within the statistical error, according to the Kantar TNS poll. Some 9.5% of those questioned were undecided. A separate Stem/Mark poll for MF Dnes daily put Zeman on 43% and Drahos on 47%, with 10% undecided. Zeman led the first round of the presidential election with 39%, while Drahos had 27%, a closer margin than expected.
The election is widely expected to be decided by two TV debates that will be held this week, the first on Prima on January 23, and the second on Czech TV on January 25.
Zeman, as one of the country’s dominant political personalities of the past two decades, is expected to have an advantage in the debate against Drahos, a political novice who until recently headed the Academy of Sciences and has largly shied away from making clear declarations of his political standpoints.
In his election run-off five years ago against Karl Schwarzenberg, a centre-right former foreign minister, Zeman was judged to have won the TV debates overall, partly by capitalising on his rival’s criticism of the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans.
This time around Zeman appears to be trying to tar Drahos with being a supporter of immigration to the country. Billboards and adverts paid for by his supporters have begun appearing, saying “Stop immigration and Drahos. This land is ours! Vote for Zeman! “
Zeman has led Czech opposition to the EU’s migrant relocation quotas and has stoked anti-Islamic sentiment, charging that Moslems are engaged in an invasion of Europe and that they can never assimilate.
Drahos has also opposed immigration to the Czech Republic – which is not backed by any front rank politician, despite the country’s shortage of labour – but has used moderate language.
Drahos’ greatest advantages are Zeman’ advanced age and poor health – he is 68, while Zeman is 74 – and the fact that most of the failed candidates in the first electoral round on January 12-13 have thrown their support behind him.
According to polls published last week, Drahos would receive around three quarters of the support of the other candidates, while Zeman would receive around a fifth of the support of those who had voted for other candidates in the first round.
The presidential election could be a decisive factor in how the country’s political stalemate is resolved. The Czech presidency is largely ceremonial but Zeman in particular has used it to play a key role during the formation of governments.
Billionaire populist Andrej Babis won October’s general election but has been unable to form a majority government because the country’s mainstream parties refuse to accept him as a premier while he faces fraud charges. As bne IntelliNews predicted before Christmas, his position was not as strong as first appeared.
Babis lost his confidence vote to confirm his minority one-party cabinet in power by 117 to 78 votes on January 16, with only his own Ano party supporting him.
Zeman, a former Social Democrat premier, said in a TV Nova interview at the weekend that he favoured an Ano government backed by the Social Democrats, hardline Communists and far right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party. However, he has also announced that Babis must show him that he has majority support before he will renominate him as premier.
Drahos has said he would not appoint Babis premier while he has fraud charges hanging over him. This means that were he to win, Babis would have to form a government before Drahos takes over in March.
Babis has begun to hint in recent days that he might have to step back from being premier himself and allow one of his deputies to go forward. "Of course it depends on the [Ano] movement, the presidency, the committee and we will see how the individual negotiations will develop," he said on Jan 17 on Czech TV.
The Ano party remains Babis’ personal vehicle, lacking internal democracy or any criticism of his leadership from the ranks, so any decision on whom the party puts forward will in reality be made by Babis himself.
On January 19 parliament finally voted to lift Babis’ immunity from prosecution, after weeks of foot dragging by Babis’ Ano deputies. Babis ultimately agreed to lift his own immunity but claimed that the investigation was ordered by his political rivals.
“The case is completely fabricated, promoted by the media, and misused for political purposes. We live in a country where it is possible to commission criminal charges against someone and have them thrown in jail,” he told parliament on January 19.
His political opponents have pointed out that this accusation belies the fact that his party has controlled the justice ministry for the past four years. An investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog Olaf has also found that there is a suspicion of fraud in the case.