Prague – The contrasts in this week’s Czech presidential elections could scarcely be starker.
In one corner is the incumbent, Milos Zeman, who is accused of fomenting fears of Muslims and refugees and once compared the European Union to the Warsaw Pact, the communist bloc’s military alliance during the Cold War.
His main challenger in the other corner is Jiri Drahos, a 68-year-old professor of chemistry, who adopts the measured tones of an academic.
Zeman, bidding for his second five-year term, expresses confidence that he will win again. Ahead of the first round on Friday and Saturday, his campaign team are doing without television adverts.
His campaign is different. It’s unconventional
The 73-year-old has also declined to participate in the televised debates between the candidates. “His campaign is different. It’s unconventional,” says respected Czech election researcher Jan Herzmann.
During his first term Zeman visited all the country’s regions as though permanently on the campaign trail. He is also running a “relatively massive campaign” via social media, Herzmann says.
“With a bit of exaggeration, you could say that his supporters and those who voted for Donald Trump are very similar. Typically they live in small or medium-sized towns or in the countryside,” the political analyst adds.
Pensioners and people with fewer academic qualifications tend to support the Zeman candidacy.
By contrast with the incumbent, Drahos is not a lifelong politician. His name is on a dozen patents, and for six years he headed the Academy of Sciences in Prague.
Opponents have taken to referring to him as “distilled water” – colourless and tasteless. But this reserved image may be deliberately cultivated.
“If there is anyone who could beat Milos Zeman in the second round, it is not someone with a lot of their own supporters, but rather someone who has made as few enemies as possible,” Herzmann says.
The CVVM public opinion research centre Zeman on 32.0 per cent in the first round, and Drahos on 21.5 per cent, with an expected run-off between the two on January 26 and 27.
There are seven more candidates in the first round that could cause an upset, including former prime minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government fell in March 2009 while the country held the EU Council presidency.
Michal Horacek, an entrepreneur and songwriter who earned his fortune through a betting company, and the former head of carmaker Skoda, Vratislav Kulhanek, are also in the running.
Implications for Europe
The election has wider implications for Europe. Zeman has turned east rather than west over recent years, according to political analyst Jiri Pehe. He met Russian President Vladimir Putin as recently as November in Sochi.
If re-elected, Zeman could form a powerful team with the Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a populist who took over in December last year and who has repeatedly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her welcome to refugees.
In his Christmas address Zeman repeated his criticism of the EU that it was failing to protect its external borders.
“I’m convinced that the concept of migration quotas will end up on history’s refuse dump,” he told the nation watching on television. “Nobody is allowed to dictate to us whom we should allow onto our territory.”
The president is treated rather like a monarch
Drahos as the main challenger has also come out against quotas for refugees as an “ill thought through and poor strategy” on the part of the EU.
But by contrast with the incumbent he is strongly against holding a referendum on Czech membership of the bloc, and he has backed the introduction of the euro, even though a recent poll found that 85.2 per cent of Czechs were against adopting the single currency.
The Czech head of state carries out largely representative duties without formal political power, but observers see the president, whose portrait hangs in every classroom, as having considerable inluence on public opinion.
“The president is treated rather like a monarch,” Pehe says. “He is supposed not only to represent, but also to set the tone for debate on public issues.”
Drahos has indicated he realizes that many Czechs would prefer a man of the people as head of state rather than an academic aloof from the world. “I would invite important politicians to a beer from time to time,” he said.