What’s At Play In Czechia’s Upcoming Presidential Election?
11 January, 2018

It may not be the most important political office, but the race for Czechia’s presidency is proving to be about more than just electing a president.

On January 12 and 13, Czechs will go to the polls and likely choose between two candidates: the country’s incumbent president Milos Zeman and Jiri Drahos, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

However, to a degree, the choice is less about policy than how voters want to flavor Czech politics, says Josef Pazderka, a journalist at the news site. Zeman is a deeply divisive figure with Euroskeptic and strongly anti-immigration views and a positive attitude toward Russia. As a result, Drahos has emerged as the alternative for Czechs who want a president who represents the state “with some kind of dignity.”

“Many Czechs are disgusted and disappointed by the moves of the current president Milos Zeman and they look for someone who is more gentle, who is someone with more respect and dignity and not such divisive figure,” Paderka says.

The Czech president may not have the extensive powers of the prime minister, but the officeholder serves an important public function and can even play a critical role when forming a government, as Czechia is doing now. And Zeman has sought to expand his powers while in office.

With Zeman’s support waning, the election will likely go into a second round, Pazderka says. That means that the contest could be unpredictable.

Hromadske spoke with Pazderka to learn more about the issues behind the upcoming election in Czechia.

Two top-candidates for the elections: president Milos Zeman and Jiri Drahos. We know a lot of about Zeman and his political figure, but Dragosh is a kind of new political figure for Czech Republic. Please, tell more about his political views, about his program. And what is actually behind him?

I would call Drahos as someone who represents so-called anti-Zeman candidate for most of the Czechs [and] is a formal head of Academy of Sciences in Czech Republic  Academy of Sciences. Someone who is well respected as a scientist and figure who is in touch with many a head of Academy of Sciences. But he is not someone who is active in a politics and began his campaign a year ago clearly on a wave of someone representing an alternative to the current president. Many Czechs are disgusted and disappointed by the moves of the current president Milos Zeman and they look for someone who is more gentle, who is someone with more respect and dignity and for not such divisive figure. I think Drahos for many people is more pragmatic choice. They don`t want seeing Zeman continue and win the presidency after January. So, they will vote for Drahosh not just an ideal candidate, but being someone who is most likely able to beat Milos Zeman.

Czech presidential elections posters. Photo credit:

So, we can say that his political views are more pro-European and Euro-optimistic. What are his main political views? What is his programme and core ideas of his election programme?

In the Czech Republic the president is kind of more representative figure, so he has some authorities as well. But I think the main thing of the Czech presidential elections at the moment is the fight between Drahosh and Zeman. It is more about representing the state with some kind of dignity without rude words, any embarrassing moments that we have seen with Milos Zeman. Zeman has stated in the beginning that he’s also more pro-European that he would be distinguished from his predecessor Vaclav Klaus, who highly criticized and who was highly sceptical about the European Union. In fact, what we are seeing is kind of very strange [struggle] over to Russia, China, etc. But also very embarrassing moments related to domestic politics, like using slang-language in many interviews, attacking media, economic environment, be in fight with some of the groups that Milos Zeman and his spokesmen... The main thing is about the dignity, about restoring faith into the position of the Czechs president.

For many years we have been observing how Russia wanted to influence political processes in Czech Republic. Do we see Russian presence in this electoral campaign now? And if yes, what is this influence?

As in many other countries in Europe there was a clear fear that they will try to disrupt or influence the presidential elections that we have in January. But also previous ones, parliamentary elections that we had in autumn last year. There are no visible attacks detected by the intelligence community. What raises fears and what raises doubts and criticism is [the] unclear background of many people who surround Milos Zeman and the finances that come in support of Milos Zeman’s huge election campaign. I mean posters, other advertisements in favour of Milos Zeman. Though he officially declares he doesn’t have any campaign, so there’s unclear background of people who pay for it. This is something that might be connected with Russia, according to some reports of the intelligence experts.

Czech presidential elections posters. Photo credit:

During this campaign, we haven’t seen a strong presence of [Prime Minister] Andrej Babis or his political party ANO. What’s the reason and what is actually the role of Andriy Babis in this electoral campaign?

Andrej Babis and his movement will announce their presidential candidate on Thursday. There are guesses that they will support Milos Zeman. Although there is big tension within the ANO movement. Half of the movement agrees with its leader Andrej Babis that they have to support Zeman because it is the best option for movement. Second half of the movement says that Milos Zeman is simply not feasible candidate anymore, but Andrej Babis is quite pragmatic politicianl. He has a big trouble at the moment in two lines. First line is that he has to form a new Cabinet and there are less and less coalition partners to join coalition with Andrej Babis, so he has trouble on the government side. But also he has a trouble on private side because there is big investigation in some kind of efforts that were related to Andrej Babis in the past as a bussinesmen. He, as alleged, has misused European funds for the construction of his home in Prague. It is a big trouble just before the presindetial election for him also on a private side. And in this case Milos Zeman is most likely someone who will support Babis if Babis supports him in elections. Because Zeman is able to help him with forming a coalition. At least, giving him much more time for forming the coalition. Secondly, Milos Zeman, it might be too far, but is able to amnesty Andrej Babis just in case he needs [it] in the criminal investigation. Milos Zeman gives very much public support to Andrej Babis ... So I think that alliance between Babis and Zeman will last.

Czech presidential elections posters. Photo credit:

In your opinion, will it make any difference, strong difference in this elections. Perhaps, with their support Zeman will get more points against Drahos or it doesn’t matter for average citizens of Czech Republic?

Just remember that ANO is the strongest political movement in the Czech Republic, so it will definitely make an impact. I don’t know how big difference it will make in a final decision of the votes, but it will definitely give a boost to Milos Zeman if Andrej Babis visibly and publicly supports him as a presidential candidate. On the other hand there is clear division also among people towards Andrej Babis, [he] is a more controversial figure than Milos Zeman. So, his appeal of this movement might be smaller than it was before. But obviously it will be boost for Milos Zeman, should Andrej Babis approve him on Thursday in his movement.

/By Ostap Yarysh and Matthew Kupfer