Pro-EU academic aims to unseat anti-immigrant Czech president in run-off

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 25, 2018 7:34 PM

By Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Pro-EU academic Jiri Drahos is seeking to unseat anti-immigration political veteran Milos Zeman, who has sought closer relations with Russia and China, in a tight run-off of the Czech presidential election starting on Friday.

Many see the vote as a referendum on the incumbent Zeman, 73, a former center-left prime minister who has shifted sharply to the right, with a brash style that has divided the EU nation.

As well as leading calls against accepting migrants from mainly Muslim countries, he has focused on building ties with Beijing and Moscow, including calling for the removal of EU sanctions imposed over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea.

The election mirrors divisions between more socially liberal and conservative camps that have featured in votes around Europe and also the United States. Zeman declared support for U.S. President Donald Trump before Trump's election in 2016, a rare position among leaders in Europe.

In a final poll released on Monday, Drahos led with 47 percent to 43 percent for Zeman, while 10 percent were undecided. Bookmakers have however tilted their odds in favor of Zeman's victory.

The president, elected for five years, is not involved in day-to-day politics but appoints central bankers and judges, and picks which politician can form a government - a process the Czech Republic has been going through since an inconclusive election last year.

Zeman has the backing of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a businessman who rules in caretaker capacity after his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in parliament last week.

Zeman, whose term does not end until March 7, has pledged to give Babis a second chance to form a government regardless of the election result, although a Drahos victory would mean the process could be rushed.

Babis's party won more than three times as many seats in parliament as its closest rival in the election in October, but is still short of a majority and has been unable to find a coalition partner so far.

Zeman has benefited from rising Czech hostility to immigration, although the country received just 116 asylum applications between January and November last year.

Opposition to an EU plan to redistribute asylum seekers around the bloc has tipped many Czechs against the EU. A Eurobarometer poll last year showed the Czechs were the most eurosceptic nation among all 28 member states.

Zeman's opponent Drahos, 68, a chemistry professor and former head of the Academy of Sciences, has also rejected the refugee quotas. He has however taken a strongly pro-European stance and favors deeper European integration.

Drahos and Zeman both spoke in favor of deeper EU cooperation and against refugee quotas in a final television debate on Thursday night.

Drahos attacked Zeman over his two closest aides who both lack security clearance, one of whom has done business in Russia and has appeared in photos in Czech media carrying a mobile phone with a portrait of Vladimir Putin stuck on the case.

"I am a candidate who looks into the future. Milos Zeman has nothing left to give to this country, but his advisers can still take away from it," Drahos said.

Drahos also said he saw Russia as a security threat because it sees NATO, to which the Czechs belong, as its adversary. Zeman said it was not, and attacked Drahos for inexperience.

"It is quite courageous to aspire for the highest post in the country and know nothing about politics," he said.

In the first round of voting, Zeman won 38.6 percent and Drahos scored 26.6 percent. But since then, Drahos has won endorsements from most of the other candidates who were eliminated in the first round.

"For me, the president is a representative personality first of all, and he (Drahos) would be good at that," said office worker Drahomira Cerna.

First round results:

(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)