Prague, Czech Republic
Voters in the Czech Republic go to the polls this weekend to elect the president that will represent their country for the next five years. For many, the vote is a referendum on outspoken president, Miloš Zeman, the pro-Trump, media-bashing and anti-migrant incumbent detested as much by Czech sophisticates as the EU elite.
Riding high in the polls with a double-digit lead on his next nearest rival, self-styled man of the people, Zeman, may yet lose out in a second round of voting to liberal competitor and political newcomer, Jiří Drahoš, a scientist running on a centrist platform and seeking to improve relations with Brussels.
One of the leading political personalities to emerge following the fall of communism in 1989, Zeman began his presidency as a supporter of the EU, only more recently clashing with Brussels on issues such as forced migrant quotas and sanctions following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. Zeman opposes the sanctions and has sought to strengthen ties with Russia, a not universally popular move given the nation’s relatively recent history in the Russian sphere.
The 73- year-old’s statements on Islam, an ‘’anti-civilization’’, on Europe’s seemingly permanent inward flow of migrants, ‘’an organized invasion’’, and his frequent jibes at the Czech media have made him the bête noire of what he describes as the ‘’Prague coffee house’’ intelligentsia, the antithesis to his working-class base.
“I admit one of the significant factors in my decision to run was the Czech media. Each of their attacks encouraged me more to run. Thank you, Czech media,” Zeman announced to the same media as he declared his intention to seek re-election last year.
Eurosceptic and right-wing parties dominated October 2017’s legislative elections, the same election in which Andrej Babiš, the billionaire ‘’Czech Trump’’, scored an electoral landslide. Babiš, now prime minister, has enjoyed presidential support under Zeman, an arrangement which will end if the presidency changes hands. The two are natural allies on certain issues including their defiance in the face of forced migrant quotas, seen by some here as the opening act of a globalist project to ‘multiculturalize’ largely homogenous Central Europe. Reflecting Czech public opinion on this issue, most of the nine presidential candidates are agreed; the Czech Republic will not be accepting Brussels-imposed migrants.
Drahoš, a mild mannered academic and Zeman’s most likely contender in any second-round vote, differs from the sitting president in that he opposes Prime Minister Babiš. He is also against holding referenda on EU or NATO membership. Styling himself as a unifying force, a win for Drahoš would see a different the country re-orient westwards after several years of increasingly close ties with Russia and China.
Zeman’s overtures towards the east have led to accusations by Drahoš and others of Kremlin interference. One such accusation saw Zeman, who has praised President Trump, hit back by accusing his opponent of acting like defeated US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the wake of her failure to win the White House in 2016 and subsequent Russian collusion allegations spread to discredit the Trump presidency.
Zeman’s ill health and reluctance to make campaign appearances have not appeared to affect his polling – up to 45% in a field of nine candidates – such is his popularity with supporters. Instead, he claims his platform is continuity; the Central European nation of 10.6 million now has the lowest unemployment of any EU country (2.5%), one its most vibrant economies and boasts fast-rising wages. Whilst the majority of political power lies with the elected government, Czech presidents do have an important role in forming governments, appointing ministers and representing the country abroad.
This weekend’s race will ultimately come down to which group is more mobilized, urbanites embarrassed by Zeman’s at times colorful language and lack of political correctness, or his rural and working class base, receptive to his populist message. If one recoils at his statements suggesting that Muslims are ‘’practically impossible’’ to integrate, at seeing their president occasionally appear inebriated at a public function, or waving a mock rifle with the punchline ”for journalists” during a press conference, the other sees in him a straight-talker with a sense of humor ready to stand-up for them and the national interest.
Polls open at 08:00 Friday.
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