The Czech Republic is once again headed to the polls on January 26-27, after the parliamentary elections of October and the first round of presidential vote. Political analyst Petr Sokol, from the Cevro Institute in Prague, geopolitics and European studies expert, delves into the profile of the two candidates Milos Zeman and Jiri Drahos addressing the challenges faced by national political life also against the backdrop of the European scenario.
How would you describe the two candidates running in the second round of the presidential elections, their political background and their attitude? President-in-office Milos Zeman is a political veteran with a long experience. He led the Social-Democrat Party in the past, and in these capacities he served as Prime Minister for four years. After voluntarily stepping down as Prime Minister he placed his efforts in the run for Presidency. That was the last time that Parliament directly elected the President of the Czech Republic. However, a number of Social-Democrats failed to support him and Zeman lost the second-round vote. He thus decided to leave his Party and for a period broke away from political life. He founded a new party, “Party of Civic Rights – Zemanovci”, which, although it didn’t win any seats, channelled important support on the path leading to Zeman’s victory in the Presidential elections of 2013, when citizenry had the opportunity of directly electing their new President. Left-wing party supporters and the rural population constituted the majority of his voters. In political terms Zeman is in favour of a more determined approach towards Russia and China on the part of the Czech Republic. He has a strongly critical view of migration and Islam, and doesn’t hesitate to adopt populist rhetoric when addressing these themes. As President, he combines his sensitivity towards social issues with a conservative approach towards issues that involve a set of core values. In the debate prior to the recent Parliament election, Zeman was a strong ally of Populist Prime Minister and tycoon Andrej Babis.
What about his political opponent? From a political angle the second of the two candidates, the former President of the Czech Academy of Sciences Professor Jiří Drahoš, can be described as “neutral” candidate, a white sheet of paper. He was never a member of a political party and until now he never accepted to hold public office or leadership positions. He’s an independent candidate, and the motivation of his commitment is to pool all “non-Zeman” political forces to defeat a political giant, as Zeman can be well described. Drahos counts on the support of right-wing voters and on the inhabitants of large urban areas.
Zeman has won the first round of elections with almost 39% of the vote, while Drahos gained slightly more than 26%, but it is believed that they will face a knife-edge run-off: why? After the first round I made a simulation of the second round based on the geographic outcome of the vote. The forecasts show a tie in the second round, that corresponds to the results of all opinion polls published. Support to both candidates is approximately 45%, while the remaining 10% of voters are undecided until the last minute. If Drahos obtained the votes of all candidates that failed to pass the first round and declared their intention to support him in the second round, he is projected to win with 58% against 42% in favour of Zeman. However, a 100% turnout is unlikely, thus the expected outcome at the polls is likely to be a tie.
What is the attitude of both candidates as regards the presence of the Czech Republic in the European scenario? What is their stand in issues such as the adoption of the Euro currency or the migration phenomenon? Milos Zeman was a convinced European federalist, but in the past years he criticized the EU, mainly with respect to the migration crisis. He envisages the possibility of a referendum to decide if the Czech Republic must exit the EU and NATO. He is substantially in favour of adopting the Euro as the national currency, however he remarked on several occasions that the process should take place only after Greece exits the Eurozone. On the other front, Drahos supports the adoption of the Euro currency but rejects the possibility of a referendum on the Czech’s Republic’s exit from the EU. As Zeman, he does not support the proposal of compulsory quotas to ensure housing to migrants adopted in Brussels, but it’s not a key-issue of his presidential election campaign.
Which major challenges will the President-elect be called to face? First of all the new President will be tasked with forming the new government. Although several months have passed since October’s Parliamentary elections, the Czech Republic is still without a new government because Parliament did not accept to give a vote of confidence to the proposal of Prime Minister Babis, charged with misusing EU funds. The new head of State will decide if a political leader under investigation should again be given the responsibility of forming a new government.