Zeman wins Czech presidential election

Zeman wins Czech presidential election
Zeman, 73, was too infirm to campaign.
By Robert Anderson in Prague January 27, 2018

Czech President Milos Zeman has been re-elected for another five years after winning the run-off on January 26-27 against chemistry professor Jiri Drahos by 51.4% to 48.6%.

Zeman won the first round of the elections on January 12-13 by 38.6% to 28.6%. Most of the eliminated candidates backed Drahos, and final polls had shown the academic winning by up to four percentage points, but Zeman remained the bookies’ favourite.

With turnout growing to 66%, Zeman seems to have succeeded in mobilising his poorer, rural and less well educated voters – he won every region in the first round apart from Prague, the second wealthiest city in the EU's eastern member states – while attracting the support of others who trusted his experience, even if they did not like his abrasive style.

Zeman, who is 73 and was too infirm to campaign, continually emphasised his huge political experience compared to that of Drahos – something that he argued was crucial in the current political vacuum.

“It is quite courageous to aspire for the highest post in the country and know nothing about politics,” he said during a TV duel between the two candidates on January 25. In his victory speech on January 27, he said that voters had decided they could not afford to let the country be led “on autopilot”.

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.

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.

Zeman had said that if he won, he would nominate Babis, though only once the billionaire has demonstrated that he can command a majority in the parliament.

He has urged his former party, the Social Democrats, to back Babis, something that could happen at the party’s congress next month. With the support of the hardline Communists, Babis’ Ano party would then have a majority. Milan Chovanec, the acting Social Democrat leader and a potential candidate, was at Zeman's victory rally.

In what may have been a tactical mistake, Drahos had said he would not nominate Babis as premier while he is under investigation. This may have cost him the votes of many Babis supporters.

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). Babis has indicated he might support a referendum bill, though not one on the EU.

Zeman 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 was partly funded from Russian sources, while the Kremlin has been accused of helping to spread online disinformation against his rival. 

Drahos, by contrast, had firmly backed 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 Russian LukOil's operations in the Czech Republic and was Zeman's 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,  tried to refute this, saying he has been opposed to the refugee quota scheme all along. He went on to attack 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. 

Two television duels in the final week of the campaign after the last opinion poll were not decisive and 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.