Czech presidential election on a knife-edge as challenger cries foul
Miloš Zeman, the populist Czech president, faces a fight for his political life in an election run-off against a pro-western liberal rival who claims he has been the victim of dirty tricks.
With the outcome on a knife-edge, Zeman’s challenger, Jiří Drahoš, a former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences who is campaigning to cement the Czech Republic’s place in the EU and Nato, says he has been smeared as a paedophile, communist collaborator and pro-immigrant elitist with ties to Angela Merkel.
The accusations could have a decisive effect, with opinion polls showing Drahoš has a slight edge over Zeman heading into the ballot, to be held on Friday and Saturday.
Two weeks ago Zeman, 73, finished ahead of Drahoš in a first-round election featuring nine contenders but fell short of the absolute majority that would have led to him being re-elected. Most of the other candidates subsequently endorsed Drahoš, helping him to pull ahead, but a potentially significant 10% of voters are still undecided.
Criticism on the internet and elsewhere has left the sober-mannered Drahoš, 68, complaining of “low blows” and hinting at interference from Moscow to help Zeman, who has gained a reputation for being pro-Russian on international affairs.
Drahoš says he has been falsely painted as a child sex offender on social media, in chain emails and on alternative news sites, as a candidate funded from abroad by a “globalist” elite and as a communist-era secret police collaborator in the former Czechoslovakia, an allegation contradicted by an officially approved certificate clearing him.
Potentially more damaging, Zeman and his supporters have tied Drahoš to support for immigration – a sensitive accusation in a country where anti-immigrant sentiment runs high.
A provocative billboard and newspaper advert – funded by a shadowy group called Friends of Miloš Zeman – has made the connection in graphic terms, reading: “Stop immigrants and Drahoš! This country is ours.”
The message is at odds with Drahoš’s public opposition to the EU’s migrant quota relocation scheme, a commonly shared position across the Czech political spectrum. He has, however, distinguished himself from more extreme postures adopted by Zeman by saying the Czech Republic could accept some refugees.
The pair clashed on the issue in a live televised debate on Tuesday, with Drahoš telling Zeman that “the problem of migrants is not addressed in China or Russia”, a reference to the president’s perceived closeness to the authoritarian governments in Beijing and Moscow.
Fuelling the bad-tempered tone are high stakes belying the presidency’s ostensible status as a mostly ceremonial role involving minimal day-to-day executive decision-making.
Whoever wins could have a decisive impact on the next government, amid deep uncertainty over the future of the scandal-hit prime minister, Andrej Babiš, a billionaire businessman who has vowed to transform the country but who was forced to resign last week after little more than a month following the loss of a parliamentary confidence vote.
Babiš, an ally of the president, faces prosecution – and a possible jail sentence if convicted – for allegedly fraudulently obtaining EU funds for one of his businesses after MPs voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity.
Zeman has said he will reappoint Babiš whatever the presidential election result. Win or lose, he will be able to do so before the next presidential term begins on 8 March. A Drahoš victory could herald political conflict because he says the prime minister should not be someone facing criminal charges.
The role of Russia and questions of alleged Kremlin meddling are contentious but less certain. Kremlin Watch, a unit run by the Prague-based European Values thinktank, has called Zeman a “Kremlin trojan horse” and says more than 30 Czech websites it characterises as sharing an ideological stance with Vladimir Putin have been involved in smearing Drahoš.
“We don’t have any clear evidence of financial links [showing] somebody in Russia is sending money to these websites, but I can imagine that if they wanted to, it would be pretty easy,” said Veronika Víchová, an analyst with Kremlin Watch.
Mark Galeotti, a fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said the Kremlin’s role was being exaggerated. “Would the Kremlin rather have anyone other than Drahoš winning this election? Of course.” he said.
“But the evidence of co-ordination that would reveal Moscow’s hand is lacking. The Russian political press is strikingly sober on this election. They see Zeman’s advantages, but they also see his limitations.”