Czech voters go to the polls this weekend in an election that pits the country’s pro-Russia President against a europhile challenger who has given the incumbent a run for his money that few were expecting.
The vote, a second-round runoff between hardline anti-migrant President Milos Zeman, and soft-spoken academic Jiri Drahos, comes as other European countries grapple with populist movements and their future within the EU.
“This is a vote between moving towards a more modern outlook, which is represented by Drahos, and for staying with views which are still influenced by our communist past, which is represented by Zeman,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.
“So that’s what’s at stake here, whether we will manage to make that step beyond the post-communist era, or whether we will remain mentally rooted in it.”
Who’s in the running?
The tough-talking 73-year-old Zeman, known for his inflammatory remarks against the EU, immigrants, Islam, the media and urban elites, was Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002 before being elected President in 2013.
Zeman has campaigned for closer ties with Russia and China, appealing to “older people, those from small towns and villages, and those who still show some nostalgia for the former communist regime and are afraid of modern trends and globalization,” according to Pehe.
Zeman, an admirer of US President Donald Trump, is also known for his inflammatory style. “He’s always been a provocateur,” said Pehe, adding “he’s probably openly the most anti-immigration and anti-Muslim top politician in Europe.”
The Czech Republic is the only EU state to have joined the US in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, though Hungary did block an EU resolution condemning the American decision last year.
The 68-year-old Jiri Drahos is a chemist and former head of the prestigious Czech Academy of Sciences, who had no experience in professional politics before he decided to run as an independent in these elections.
A centrist, Drahos is pro-EU, pro-NATO, supports the adoption of the euro and sees the Czech Republic’s future firmly anchored in the West.
“Drahos is the candidate of the young people who are simply, for lack of a better expression, more modern,” said Pehe.
“Zeman tends to be seen as more vulgar, whereas Drahos is more dignified.”
How much power does the president actually have?
The Czech President is a largely ceremonial role, with limited political power. Instead, the President’s influence lies in appointing the government and Prime Minister.
The current Prime Minister, billionaire businessman Andrej Babis, is a firm ally of Zeman. Babis’ populist Ano party won the parliamentary election in October.
Last week Babis’ minority government resigned after losing a vote of confidence following allegations he had been defrauding the EU, which he denies.
For now, the party continues as acting administrators of governmental affairs. Babis’ future largely depends on he next President.
“Zeman is an ally of Babis who has said he would appoint him as Prime Minister again,” said Pehe. “Whereas Drahos has said he’s not going to appoint a criminally prosecuted Prime Minister.”
Who will win?
In the first round of voting earlier this month, Zeman polled at 38.6%, ahead of Jiri Drahos on 26.6%.
The four other top candidates – who accounted for 32.5% of the vote – are now urging voters to back Drahos, so the final outcome is likely to be tight.
“It’s not certain Zeman will be reelected because the views of Czech society is really split 50-50,” said Pehe.
“So I think a lot of it will depend on the turnout, and whether those voters of other candidates in the first round will now back Drahos.”