Zeman tipped to win in Czech presidential run-off

Zeman tipped to win in Czech presidential run-off
Jiri Drahos (right) performed better in the second of the two television duels, though President Milos Zeman made his experience count.
By Robert Anderson in Prague January 25, 2018

Czech President Milos Zeman goes into the election run-off on January 26-27 as the bookies’ favourite, though final polls show his challenger, chemistry professor Jiri Drahos, as slightly ahead.

Zeman won the first round of the elections on January 12-13 by 38.6% to 28.6%, but after most of the eliminated candidates backed Drahos, polls now show the academic winning by up to four percentage points.

Despite the president’s largely ceremonial role, the election is seen as crucial because of the country’s ongoing political crisis in forming a government, and the deepening divide between the European Union’s liberal western and populist eastern halves.

“The impact on the mindset [of a change of president] will be huge,” said Constantin Kinsky, head of the Czech-French Chamber of Commerce.

Zeman has strongly backed populist billionaire Andrej Babis’ right to become prime minister following his general election win in October, even though no mainstream party will currently work with him and he faces fraud charges. In return, Babis has backed Zeman as president. Drahos has said he would not nominate Babis as premier while he is under investigation, though Zeman has made it clear that if he loses the presidential election he would use his second and final right to officially nominate Babis before Drahos would have the chance to take over in March.

Zeman, once a strong supporter of the EU and even of the Czech Republic joining the Eurozone, now flirts with the far right by calling for a referendum on whether the country should remain in the EU (though he says he would vote to stay in). He has also become an apologist for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and has led numerous trade delegations to Russia and China to try to build better trade links there.

The president has also been dogged by allegations that his campaign is partly funded from Russian sources, while the Kremlin has been accused of helping to spread online disinformation against his rival. 

Drahos, by contrast, firmly backs EU membership and wants the country to stay facing West rather than East. In the final TV debate on January 25 he hammered away at Zeman's controversial  advisers, Martin Nejedly and Vladimir Mlynar. Nejedly used to run LukOil's operations in the Czech Republic and is his key campaign fundraiser. Neither adviser has won the security clearance that such aides normally require.

Zeman, a former Social Democrat premier who now appears on far right platforms, has sought to depict his rival as an out of touch liberal elitist. In particular Zeman has tried to tar Drahos as a supporter of EU quotas that would relocate refugees in the Czech Republic on the basis that he once signed a petition deploring the ferociously anti-immigrant mood in the country.

Drahos,  a former head of the Academy of Sciences,  refutes this, saying he has been opposed to the quota scheme all along. In his turn, he has attacked Zeman for dividing Czech society rather than uniting it,  for putting at risk the country's Western links, and for demeaning the presidency by his vulgar remarks and swearing. 

A lot will depend on the turnout of Zeman’s poorer, rural and less well educated voters – Zeman won every region in the first round apart from Prague, the second wealthiest city in the  EU's eastern member states – as well as voters' reaction to the performance of the two contenders in the two television duels in the final week of the campaign after the last opinion poll.

The debate on Czech public television was a tougher challenge for Zeman than the first duel on TV Prima on January 23 –  watched by 2.6mn amd 2.2mn voters respectively out of a total electorate of 8.7mn.

Commercial channel Prima – which instructed its reporters last year to cover the issue of refugees as a threat to the country – staged the debate like a game show, with a cheering and stamping partisan crowd, and chose populist topics such as migrants, rules on gun ownership, and the smoking ban in restaurants that played to Zeman’s strengths. Afterwards most pundits gave the veteran politician Zeman the edge, though Drahos was seen to have increased in confidence as the debate went on and landed some blows.

In the debate, Drahos, 68, looked nervous but was able to catch Zeman out a few times when he made unfounded assertions. The president, who is 73 and in very poor health, was condescending and aggressive, but was unable to land a knock-out blow. At the end of the debate, there was a stark contrast between Drahos – whose campaign videos show him jogging and cross-country skiing – and the ailing president, who could hardly get out of this chair.

In the Czech TV debate on January 25 Drahos was much more aggressive, while Zeman was content to appear calm and reasonable and act the statesman. For a lot of the debate Zeman was on the defensive, particularly over his advisers and his financial backers, but he remained measured and patient, leaving Drahos often looking peevish. 

In front of a small audience in the darkened echoing foyer of the Rudolfinum concert hall, Zeman played again on his experience compared to Drahos'. “It is quite courageous to aspire for the highest post in the country and know nothing about politics,” he said.

Neither TV debate was decisive and the election result could therefore go either way. Both candidates missed an opportunity to seize the advantage: Zeman failed to demonstrate Drahos' lack of qualifications for the presidential role,  while Drahos did not offer an inspiring vision of a different kind of president.