He’s a septuagenarian who dislikes Muslims, the media and migrants and loves Vladimir Putin. He’s detested by urban dwellers and liberal elites who see him as a national embarrassment and a menace to values they hold dear.
And he’s just won his second term as president.
The reelection of “Europe’s Trumpiest president” shows the Continent’s populist tide isn’t receding.
Czech President Miloš Zeman beat political novice Jiří Drahoš Friday and Saturday in a contest that was characterized by smears of Zeman’s opponent and allegations of covert Russian funding for the incumbent’s campaign.
The 73-year-old’s politics has invited obvious comparisons with his U.S. counterpart, although he has been on the international political scene far longer. After Trump’s election, he was an early invitee to the White House, being the only European head of state to back Trump as a candidate. “There are many politicians who admired Trump after the elections, when courage is cheap,” Zeman said last year.
“This was my final political victory” — Miloš Zeman
The result, albeit by a narrow margin is a blow for those who had hoped that electoral setbacks for anti-EU forces in France and the Netherlands last year were evidence that the populist surge was waning. A win for his opponent — a strong supporter of Czech EU and NATO membership — would have been a boon for liberals.
In the event though, Zeman ground out a win by hammering the anti-immigration playbook. And his victory was another demonstration of his consummate political skills and proof of the deep division in Czech society that he, more than anyone else, has created and exploited.
‘Final victory’ over ‘idiot’ press
Zeman is a realist who knows this is his last hurrah. At a victory rally Saturday afternoon he savored it with a touch of humor.
“This was my final political victory,” he told cheering supporters on Saturday. “And after it, there will be no political defeats. Because, as you well know, according to the constitution the president can serve only two five-year terms, and I definitely do not want to change the constitution.”
Fortified by the win, he appears determined to continue his pugnacious style of governing, particularly his running battle with the media. At the victory celebration, he referred to journalists as “idiots,” and later, according to local media reports, several journalists were manhandled by his bodyguards, and one was physically assaulted.
“Stop immigrants and Drahoš! This country is ours” — Broad billboard campaign, paid for by a group called Friends of Miloš Zeman
Zeman’s reelection also means the Czech Republic’s running battle with the EU regarding such issues as migration and sanctions against Russia will continue, with the possibility raised during the campaign of a referendum being held on EU membership. However, to mount such a vote would mean going through a complex and difficult legal process.
Brussels would certainly have welcomed a victory by Drahoš, who is a firm supporter of the EU and has said he would be open to accepting a limited number of migrants.
The Czech Republic is one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the EU. Surveys have shown that the Czechs have grown largely disenchanted with the Union, with approval of EU membership at an all-time low.
To win a second five-year term, Zeman had to shrug off questions about his health and accusations that Russia helped fund his election run and was behind a nasty smear campaign against Drahoš, falsely accusing him of pedophilia, collaboration with the former communist secret police and wanting to open Czech borders to mass migration.
A broad billboard campaign, paid for by a group called Friends of Miloš Zeman, broadcast the message “Stop immigrants and Drahoš! This country is ours.” Around three-quarters of Czechs are opposed to accepting migrants from Muslim-majority countries.
The source of the funding for the group was never revealed, and Jakub Janda, deputy director of the European Values think tank, who has investigated the president’s links to Russia, says at least one-third of his campaign funding came from undeclared donors. The president’s entourage has denied that Moscow played any part in the campaign.
However, whether the allegations are true or not, the closeness of Zeman’s victory — 51.36 percent to 48.62 percent — against an opponent with no political experience, suggests that the president is vulnerable and could have been defeated by an opponent with more political savvy.
Political analyst Jiří Pehe, director of New York University in Prague and a former adviser to the late Czech President Václav Havel, said that Zeman would probably have lost against a more skilled campaigner.
Pehe said Drahoš’ performance in a televised debate may also have been key. “Zeman came across as someone who can react to political questions, whereas Drahoš seemed to be a little uncertain and a bit academic. In the eyes of voters who don’t follow politics very much, that probably made an impression.”
Zeman’s victory was welcomed by Tomio Okamura, the head of the far right-wing, anti-immigration SPD, who shared the podium with Zeman. “It is obvious that there are more and more citizens in the Czech Republic who are able to think for themselves,” he told Czech television. “President Zeman promotes direct democracy, is anti-immigrant, is anti-Islamic, is patriotic and he is a warrior against international terrorism.”
Miroslav Kalousek, the head of the parliamentary faction of the center-right TOP 09 party, said his hopes for a change have been extinguished. “Certainly we will survive, as we do all the time,” he told local media. “But repairing the damage that will happen is not going to be an easy or quick process.”
Prime Minister-elect Andrej Babiš, who is still trying to form a stable government nearly three months after his election, welcomed Zeman’s victory. “If the president had lost, we would have had to hurry [to find a stable government],” he told Czech TV. “Now we’ll have more time.”
Most political parties have refused to support Babiš because he has been charged with defrauding the EU of a large subsidy for his Agrofert conglomerate. But Zeman has made it clear that he would give the prime minister the time he needs to put a stable government in place.
Babiš agreed that the vote revealed a split society. “The situation is not good. The election has confirmed that our society is divided. “he said. “The president has promised to try to be constructive. We need that.”
Pehe said the challenger’s good showing was due largely to the fact that the election was widely seen as a referendum on Zeman and that half of the country is opposed to the president. This division has been defined and cleverly leveraged by Zeman, he said.
“Shortly after his election, in 2013, he went on the offensive and divided Czech society into the part of society he represents and the ‘café society’ of Prague,” Pehe said.
Drahoš did best in the Czech capital, which he won by a better than 2-1 margin, and its surroundings.
“Zeman won partly because he was able to mobilize almost all of his voters, and the other part of society — people who are more modern, more pro-European, more outward-looking — was not entirely united,” Pehe said.