Putin Fan Zeman Heads for Czech Re-Election Runoff Challenge

Updated on
  • Incumbent garners most votes of nine candidates in first round
  • Chemistry professor Drahos in second place, advances to runoff
Milos Zeman, Czech president, arrives for a ceremony at Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic. Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

Czech President Milos Zeman is heading into a runoff against a pro-European challenger in a ballot that’s become a public reckoning of a veteran politician who’s thrown his support behind Russian leader Vladimir Putin and mobilized voters with anti-migrant rhetoric.

Zeman, 73, won 39 percent in a first round of voting that ended on Saturday. The former prime minister and parliamentary speaker will face Jiri Drahos, a 68-year-old chemistry professor and past head of the Czech Academy of Sciences in a head-to-head contest on Jan. 26-27. Drahos won 27 percent, far ahead of the next challenger, according to results published by the statistics office.

Milos Zeman, Czech president, arrives for an official ceremony at the Prague Castle.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

During his first five-year term, Zeman carved out a stronger position for the largely ceremonial post through what he calls a “creative interpretation” of the constitution. In moves that drew ire from many Czechs, he vowed support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, verbally attacked migrants and journalists and made what his critics say were offensive remarks about topics ranging from feminism to the lack of danger from smoking.

“There has hardly been any campaign until now -- the real campaign starts today,” said Stanislav Balik, a political scientist at Masaryk University in Brno, the nation’s second-largest city. Drahos “will have to be more than just an anti-Zeman. He will have to become a much more distinct candidate and show where he stands on issues.”

The Czech Republic is the EU’s richest post-communist member by economic output per capita, with the bloc’s lowest unemployment and one of its fastest growth rates. But Zeman’s rivals say the country has become polarized by the president’s call for an end to EU sanctions against Russia and his anti-immigrant stance.

Four of the also-ran candidates who won a combined 31 percent in the first round rallied behind Drahos with endorsements. Drahos has pledged to return “dignity” to the presidential post and strengthen ties with the country’s traditional partners in the EU and NATO.

Click here to read how Zeman has remade the role of president

Zeman has won backing from poorer and rural voters in the country of 10.6 million by opposing what he calls urban elites detached from the lives of ordinary people. He raised eyebrows weeks after the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU by calling for a similar referendum in the Czech Republic. The president said he’d vote for staying, but the proposal rang alarm bells in what is one of the most skeptic members of the world’s largest trading bloc.

At least one opinion poll taken before the first round showed that Zeman may lose the runoff. While he refused to take part in debates with his challengers before the first round, the president promised to meet Drahos in a TV face-off before the second ballot.

“I’m still young and full of strength, and I enjoy discussions,” Zeman told a crowd of supporters in Prague, a rebuff of media speculation that his health is deteriorating.

Like other anti-immigrant politicians who made gains in EU elections last year, Zeman has won favor with voters with his rhetoric -- warning that Muslims would impose Sharia law in the country of 10.6 million, cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterous women. He appointed his ally in opposing the EU’s refugee policy, billionaire Andrej Babis, as prime minister, even though the tycoon’s government failed to win a majority in parliament in October elections and looks set to lose a confidence motion as early as Tuesday.

Babis has vowed to support Zeman, but warned him to declare that he doesn’t favor orienting the country to the east.

“He has got a label that he’s pro-Russia, pro-China, but I think that’s nonsense,” Babis said in an interview on TV Prima on Sunday. “He should explain that these contacts at the highest levels, with Chinese president, with President Putin, are in the interest of our entrepreneurs.”

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