Refugee Crisis Takes Center Stage in Czech Presidential Election

  • Incumbent Zeman and Drahos to compete in Jan. 26-27 runoff
  • Ties with EU, Russian are also among main election topics

Migrants look from a window at a detention center for migrants in Bela pod Bezdezem, Czech Republic.

Photographer: Matej Divizna/Getty Images Europe

Czech presidential challenger Jiri Drahos said he opposes the uncontrolled inflow of immigrants into the country, calling for refugees to be managed outside the European Union as the issue takes center stage in next week’s runoff election.

Drahos, who will challenge anti-Muslim incumbent Milos Zeman in the Jan. 26-27 second round of voting, said the country of 10.6 million can’t be forced to accept migrants it doesn’t want, according to an interview published by the Pravo newspaper on Thursday. On the same day, the paper carried an add paid for by Zeman’s supporters that said “Stop immigrants and Drahos, this country is ours.”

Story about the first round of Czech presidential elections

Czech politicians have been among the most vocal critics of the EU’s plan to impose compulsory quotas for accepting migrants during the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. The European Commission referred the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary to EU Court of Justice for not complying with the measure. While Drahos has rejected warnings that the country will be overrun by refugees, he also opposes efforts to portray him as someone welcoming an unlimited number of migrants.

“We, as the Czech Republic, must be able decide ourselves who we want on our soil and who will live here with us,” Drahos told Pravo. “If someone wants to live here with us, they have to go through standard asylum procedures and accept our laws and unwritten rules.”

While the Czech Republic has a tiny Muslim community -- it accepted only 67 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq last year -- the refugee crisis has lifted the popularity of anti-establishment politicians. The anti-Islam party called the Freedom and Direct Democracy, which supports Zeman and is calling to leave the EU, came in fourth in October elections.

During his first five-year term as president, Zeman has repeatedly linked Islam to terrorist attacks in Europe and warned that Muslim migrants will seek to impose Sharia law in countries where they settle.

His rhetoric sparked a rebuke from UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who’s aide said in 2015 that “repeated Islamophobic” statements by Zeman were contributing to “an increasingly xenophobic public discourse” in the Czech Republic.

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