Pro-Russian president, academic challenger face off in dead-heat Czech presidential vote

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 26, 2018 7:06 PM

By Robert Muller

PRAGUE (Reuters) - Czechs finish voting on Saturday in a presidential election run-off where pro-western academic Jiri Drahos is trying to oust incumbent Milos Zeman, whose courting of Russia and China and leaning toward far-right groups have split the nation.

The election is seen as a referendum on Zeman, 73. The last prominent figure among active politicians from the country's transitional period in the 1990s, he has pleased some but alienated others by publicly belittling opponents ranging from the last prime minister to intellectual elites to the press.

The vote, expected to be almost even, reflects the divisions between liberals and conservatives seen elsewhere in Europe and the United States. Zeman has taken a tough stance on migration and backed Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Czech constitution gives presidents limited executive powers, but Zeman has not hesitated to test the boundaries. In 2013, for example, he appointed a caretaker government of his allies for five months in 2013 against the will of parliament.

While the last poll put Drahos, 68, three percentage points ahead of the incumbent, betting odds showed the opposite, slightly favoring Zeman.

A victory by Drahos could bring a voice more in tune with the European Union into the Czech politics and set it apart from its ex-communist peers Poland and Hungary, who have locked horns with the EU.

"Zeman never questioned the Czech membership in the EU, but on the other hand he said he would welcome a referendum on exit and in practice he significantly deviated from both EU and NATO," said political analyst Michael Romancov.

"It is clear that Jiri Drahos is unequivocally pro-EU and an euro-Atlantic candidate."

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

Both he and Drahos have rejected the refugee quotas, but unlike Zeman, Drahos has said he country should differentiate between economic migrants and war refugees and follow its asylum procedures.

Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a businessman who has ruled as a caretaker since his minority cabinet lost a confidence vote in parliament last week, is backing Zeman.

Zeman also backs Babis. His term ends on March 7, but he has pledged to give Babis a second chance to form a government regardless of the election result. He even said that the process would be accelerated if he lost to Drahos.

The two candidates are as dissimilar personally as they are politically. Zeman is brash, with a self-advertised appetite for alcohol and tobacco. His health is a concern - he suffers from diabetes, which makes him walk with a cane. Drahos is a soft-spoken chemistry professor.

And by the same token, voters are split between those who see Zeman as embarrassment and those who think Drahos is colorless and lack in want of strong views.

"I vote Drahos, because he is more acceptable and he will represent our country well," said Marie Havlickova, a pensioner.

First round results

(Reporting by Robert Muller, editing by Larry King)