Pro-Russian and liberal clash in Czech presidential showdown

Pro-Russian and liberal clash in Czech presidential showdown

PRAGUE – Agence France-Presse
Pro-Russian and liberal clash in Czech presidential showdown

Czechs head to the ballot box Jan. 26 and 27 in a tight presidential run-off in the EU and NATO state pitting pro-Russian incumbent Milos Zeman against pro-European rival Jiri Drahos in a race that promises to go down to the wire.

A poll by the Kantar TNS and Median agencies showed the rivals are neck-and-neck, with the divisive 73-year-old ex-communist Zeman scoring 45.5 percent of the vote against 45 percent for the liberal academic Drahos.

About 10 percent of voters are still undecided and polls have shown that they too are split down the middle.

“This is a showdown between two completely different candidates representing two parts of a rather split society,” political analyst Tomas Lebeda, from Palacky University in the eastern Czech city of Olomouc, told AFP.

Known for his pro-Chinese and stridently anti-Muslim stance, Zeman took pole position in a field of nine candidates in the Jan. 12-13 first round, scoring 38.56 percent of the vote, ahead of Drahos with 26.60 percent.

While Zeman represents low-income voters with lower education and those living in the countryside, Drahos appeals to wealthier, well-educated urbanites.

In their final debate on Czech Television on Jan. 25, he slammed Zeman as “a representative of the past political era... a symbol of division.”

Zeman said Drahos, a newcomer to politics, “has no idea” about the “craft you have to learn for a long time.”

The vote comes amid a wider political crisis as billionaire populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis is fighting police charges of EU subsidy fraud that are hampering his ability to form a government.

Even though the country of 10.6 million people has only received 12 migrants under the EU quota system, migration has become a key issue in the campaign.

Zeman’s attitude to the European Union echoes other populist-minded EU politicians -- like Poland and Hungary -- at odds with Brussels over mandatory refugee quotas and various rules which they see as attempts to limit national sovereignty.

He has repeatedly called on the EU to lift its sanctions on Russia and attended a forum on a Greek island organized by a Vladimir Putin ally who is a persona non grata in the United States.

Zeman once called the 2015 migrant crisis “an organized invasion” of Europe, claiming Muslims were “impossible to integrate.”

Billboards across the Czech Republic sought to appeal to voters with anti-migrant messages: “Stop immigrants and Drahos. This is our country. Vote Zeman!”

Running under the slogan “Decency is a strength,” Drahos, a 68-year-old former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences and a trained chemist, could not be more different.

A mild-mannered centrist whom critics have branded “wishy-washy,” he has called for Prague to “play a more active role in the EU” and backed the adoption of the euro.

He is also a critic of the refugee quota system, but contends that the Czech Republic is strong enough to accept its allotted 2,600 refugees, which has earned him scorn in pro-Zeman media and on social networks.

Drahos has also flatly denied and fought off allegations of pedophilia and having been a communist police agent, suggesting the smear-campaign was devised by Russian intelligence with links to his rival.

Babis’s populist ANO movement won October’s general elections on an anti-corruption and anti-euro ticket, scoring 78 seats in the 200-member parliament.

But potential coalition partners have shunned Babis, who is fighting police charges of EU funding fraud.

Babis was forced to form a minority government which failed a confidence vote on Jan. 16, only days before he was stripped of immunity as lawmaker, allowing the police to proceed with the charges.

But Zeman gave Babis a second chance on Jan. 24, in line with the constitution, asking him to form a new cabinet and pledging to name his second cabinet before his term ends on March 8, no matter the outcome of the presidential vote.