Zeman set for another controversial stint as Czech president

Zeman set for another controversial stint as Czech president
By Tim Gosling in Prague March 10, 2017

Milos Zeman officially announced on March 10 that he will seek re-election as Czech president in a vote in January 2018.

The outspoken veteran of Czech politics is the most popular politician in the country by far, and will face little serious challenge in his bid to remain in Prague Castle for another term. That will leave him free in the coming months to wield his popularity to influence parliamentary elections due in October.

Zeman, who sat in the prime minister’s chair in the 1990s and 2000s for the Social Democrats (CSSD), was elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in the first direct vote for the post in 2013. He has since raised his appeal - largely amongst older and rural voters - with a consistent stream of crude populist controversy. The head of state regularly rails against migrants and liberals, and is proud of having been an early supporter of Donald Trump’s drive into the White House.

He has also successfully usurped foreign policy, and is often quoted by international media despite his views being opposite to those of the government, which is formally in charge. Most notably, he has sided with Russia in its stand off with the West. He has also infuriated many at home by pushing for the favours of Chinese investors, while dismissing human rights or issues such as Taiwan.

It is his appeal with voters in a country notoriously suspicious of politicians that allows the head of state to enjoy such privilege. A wily operator, Zeman’s announcement that he will run for another term puts him in position to mediate in the upcoming general election. The president first announced his decision on the evening of March 9 at a “private” event attended by 1,000 supporters that was widely advertised more than a month in advance.

"I hope to win another five years at the forefront of free people with their own mind, own conscience and self-esteem,” Zeman told the crowd, according to state news channel CT24. “I would not want to be defeated by those who cannot speak their own opinion, and wrap themselves in political correctness, and have the charisma of a jar of pickles.”

Zeman is usually sure to hint at earthy, everyday staples of Czech life, a tactic that has helped him split the electorate. His appeal to the older generation and less affluent is matched by the hatred and embarrassment he provokes in the major cities.

That's the result of a deliberate strategy. Zeman has spent the last five years extolling the virtues of the “Czech pub”, and condemning the liberals that prowl the “Prague café”.

Party leaders have found it impossible to resist, and have been adopting similarly populist stances.

The CSSD, current coalition leader, is struggling in the polls, with support having dropped to the mid-teens. Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka now faces a conundrum. He needs to try to attach his party to Zeman to utilise his popularity, but there are years of bad blood, and the president retains a strong influence inside his former party. Inviting Zeman back inside the CSSD only threatens to make Sobotka’s position at the head more precarious.

The prime minister is vulnerable because the CSSD lags coalition partner Ano by around 10 points. Billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babis has met regularly with Zeman in recent months, and the pair have made it plain that they could seek to create a loose union in a bid to boost one another’s popularity.

The pair represent the contradictory nature of Czech politics, which tends to guard against the extremes of populism witnessed elsewhere in the region and worldwide. Despite his attacks on the "liberal elite" Zeman is staunchly pro-EU in a country of eurosceptics. Babis is a populist whose biggest boast from his four years in government is to tighten spending to produce a record surplus last year.

What concessions Babis, who looks set for the prime minister's seat after October, may be asked to make if Zeman is to help him build a new government that omits the CSSD are unclear. The Czech political scene is very fragmented, and Babis is wary of teaming up with the communist KSCM, which is a potential kingmaker but has been kept out of government since the collapse of the regime in 1989.

Zeman will visit Trump in the White House in April. Babis will accompany him, as will Interior Minister Milan Chovanec, who has been pressing his name into the headlines in recent months with a series of controversial populist calls.

He wants Czech gun owners to be allowed to use their weapons in the event of a terrorist attack, and for Prague to ignore the EU to open independent talks with the UK over Brexit.