Europe

Czech presidential race boils down to Milos Zeman or not

Milos Zeman, the controversial, populist Czech president, stands for re-election this month. His challengers' main campaign message is that they are not him. Political vision is lacking. Tim Gosling reports from Prague.

A campaign poster to reelect Czech President Milos Zeman

Journalists should be "liquidated"; vegetarians and teetotalers deserve death; Islam is conducting a "super-Holocaust" against Europe; and the world should accept Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Such rhetoric was absent from a recent presidential debate at Dox, a modern art gallery in Prague, because Milos Zeman refuses to engage his rivals. That left many in the audience feeling a Christmas-carol singalong was the high point.

Read more: Opinion: Czech voters more than simply right-wingers

The incumbent may be crude and calculating, but he's rarely dull. His competitors, meanwhile, struggle to offer inspiration; the seven middle-aged men on the stage appear to think not being Milos Zeman is enough.

"The challengers are very bland; it's hard to find any political substance," notes Sean Hanley, of the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. "The candidate that poses the biggest risk to Zeman is Zeman."

Jiri Drahos, an independent, academic and political novice leads the pack. Polls suggest he'll face off against Zeman two weeks after the first round of voting that takes place on January 12 and 13. The final result is difficult to call.

A campaign poster for Jiri Drahos

Jiri Drahos could give Milos Zeman a run for his money

However, whilst defeating Zeman is the number one priority for the liberal crowd at Dox, the lack of significant policy options bothers them.

"It's all a bit of circus; it doesn't feel like a serious debate," complains 30-year-old Adam Podhola, who works for an NGO. While he says he'll vote for Drahos — "because he has the best chance of beating Zeman" — he's not overly impressed with the candidate. "He keeps bringing up Zeman," Podhola complains, "but that's pointless; there's not a single Zeman voter here."

Milos Zeman speaks to the countryside

Indeed, the young, urban audience is not the hard-drinking, chain-smoking president's crowd. It's in the provinces that his xenophobic and reactionary rhetoric plays well.

Amidst disputed claims of ill health, the 73-year-old Zeman looks increasingly frail. However, he remains a shrewd political operator, and if re-elected will continue to seek to expand the boundaries of a post that is officially largely ceremonial.

Since winning the Czech Republic's first direct presidential election in 2013, Zeman has played fast and loose with the constitution to impose his will on policy and even foisted his own government on the country at one point. During the current presidential race, he's using his role in the formation of a new administration to keep himself in the media spotlight.

Under a suspected pact with billionaire leader Andrej Babis, Zeman has said he will hand the ANO party — struggling to form a minority government following parliamentary elections in October — as many opportunities as possible to win a confidence vote in the lower house. Although the deal provoked large protests last year, Zeman's challengers are hedging their bets in the face of the populist tide across the country.

Read more: Czech billionaire Andrej Babis named new prime minister

President Milos Zeman and Andrej Babis in Prague

Milos Zeman and Andrej Babis are suspected of having made a deal so the latter can form a government

"If the ANO government does not win a vote of confidence at the first attempt, a member of another party should be asked to try to form a government, if there is a chance of a majority," Drahos told DW. However, there is no chance of forming a government without ANO.

Illiberal democracy or no?

Zeman has also run his own "alternative" foreign policy over the past five years, often clashing with the stance of both the government and the EU, He has raised suspicion in Western capitals by railing against Russian sanctions and chasing Chinese investment. His rhetoric has affected the Czech Republic's international image, thrusting it into the troublemakers club led by Hungary and Poland, despite official government policy being much more moderate.

Read more: EU sues Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland over low refugee intake

The next president will play a vital role, then, in setting the tone for the country's relations with an EU planning deeper integration.

"Another Zeman presidency would further complicate any move towards the "core" EU," suggests Hanley. "He will keep the agenda anti-EU and anti-migrant."

Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague Castle is the seat of the Czech president

Drahos insists the EU is a cornerstone for the Czech Republic and offers statesmanship rather than crude rhetoric, but he is also wary of the populist mood.

"People have been massively indoctrinated by politicians spreading fear arising from mass migration, concerns about a lack of jobs in the future and the hegemony of big EU countries, etc.," he says. "That's a cunning strategy, as there is some logic in all of these points."

Bridge-builder sought

Although new Prime Minister Babis has often adopted populist stances on such issues, he is also a pragmatic businessman who seeks warm relations with Brussels. The membership in the "core" EU that is currently being developed is key for a country hugely dependent on exports to the bloc and cohesion funding. But Babis will need help convincing the electorate of the need for compromise with Brussels.

It will take a clear political vision — rather than simply a new president — to heal the divide Zeman has engineered between his nationalist conservative voters and supporters of liberal democracy, and steer the country back towards the EU, Hanley points out.

"We need to turn the page," says Podhola. "The hate Zeman instills is unhealthy for the future. He makes me feel ashamed of my country sometimes and question who my neighbors may be."

Read more: 'Unforgettable' Prague Spring recalled, 50 years later

Yet Drahos has expressed no strategy for fixing the fissure to open the political space and allow Prague to move toward a core EU. Instead, he says the next president must "be open, tell the truth, and present a vision … [on how] to defend our strategic interests within the EU."

The timidity risks demobilizing the liberal vote, warns Hanley, and Drahos will likely face a stern test in the second-round of voting on January 26 and 27. It was at that point in 2013 that the wily Zeman took the gloves off against his liberal opponent and romped to victory.

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